TORONTO — Terry Gilliam is disarmingly charming, sweet and funny in person.
Disarming because his new film, ‘‘Tideland,’’ is so macabre and disturbing that it seems as though it sprung from the imagination of a man gone suddenly mad and not the respected filmmaker behind cinematic triumphs like ‘‘Brazil’’ and ‘‘The Fisher King.’’
The movie, about an 11-year-old girl with heroin-addicted parents and her life alone on the Prairies after she helps them shoot up one too many times, has been roundly reviled by critics. Some have even called it the film that could kill Gilliam’s career.
The diminuitive Gilliam, sipping on a whisky sour recently in a downtown hotel, concedes that his film, shot in Saskatchewan and funded in part by Telefilm Canada, is dark. But he insists the film, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin, is a colourful trek into a traumatized girl’s imagination that resonates with anyone who’s had a painful childhood.
‘‘It was certainly meant to be a provocative film, but also a film that explores the innocence and the beauty of childhood,’’ he says of the movie David Cronenberg has called a ‘‘poetic horror film.’’
The movie stars Jeff Bridges and Jodelle Ferland, a young Vancouver actress previously seen in ‘‘Silent Hill.’’ She’s in every scene of ‘‘Tideland,’’ and also does the voices of the talking doll heads that are her only friends in the decrepit farmhouse on the windswept plains — if you discount the rotting corpse of her father.
Gilliam, 66, can’t speak highly enough of Jodelle, calling her an ‘‘astonishing’’ actress.
‘‘She made the choices. I told her physically what to do, where to stand and so on, but she constantly surprised us in the way she chose to do things. She was extraordinary. Jodelle carries the film — she is the film.’’
Even though the movie had yet to open in the United States at the time of the interview — it opens in Canada on Friday — Gilliam still seemed genuinely stung by the negative reviews from those who wrote about the film after its screening at 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
‘‘After the screening in Toronto, 1,200 people were on their feet, cheering and applauding,’’ he says. ‘‘And then I read the trades the next day and they just completely dismissed it, they said it didn’t work, that the actress couldn’t carry the film. And I just asked myself: ‘What film did they see?’“
The onetime Monty Python animator can’t say he wasn’t warned, however. His friend Michael Palin, another former Python member who lives nearby in London, had words of warning for Gilliam.
‘‘He said it’s either the best thing I’ve ever done, or the absolute worst thing I’d ever done, he couldn’t quite decide,’’ Gilliam says.
The movie — replete with startling scenes involving fly-infested corpses, sinister neighbours and a simmering sexual attraction by a mentally disturbed man to young Jeliza-Rose — has certainly been a tough sell. While it premiered at the Toronto film festival more than a year ago, it only recently found an American distributor. ThinkFilm finally bit.
‘‘It turned out to be tougher to sell in the U.S. than we thought, and we didn’t want to release it in Canada until it was released in the States, so that was the hold-up,’’ Gilliam says. ‘‘I’m really tired because I’ve spent the year travelling around trying to sell this film.’’