The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not only Heath Ledger’s last film, but also one of his, and director/writer Terry Gilliam’s, greatest. Everyone is in top form as they bring together a masterpiece of cinema that nearly ended up sitting in a vault, half finished, for all eternity.
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) roams around modern day London in an old horse-drawn wagon that fits perfectly into a Gilliam film, but seems starkly out of place in front of shopping centers and night clubs. Parnassus’s sideshow, unlike other carnival attractions, is the real deal. As patrons enter the mirror (made from flimsy foil with a split in the middle) they are greeted on the other side with their own imaginations, where faces often change form and the choice of enlightenment or death are just around the corner. While Parnassus provides the enlightenment, his long-time rival, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), deals the death. In an ongoing effort to free himself from the hold of Mr. Nick, Parnassus foolishly enters gamble after gamble and never comes out on top. But Mr. Nick isn’t here to win, he’s here to play, and play he does as he devises new schemes that bring just enough hope to the doctor to keep the game alive.
Doctor Parnassus’s traveling sideshow crew consists of Anton (Andrew Garfield), the carnival barker whose simple magic tricks attempt to bring people to the stage, Percy (Verne Troyer), a dwarf who doubles as a showman and Parnassus’s voice of reason, and Parnassus’s daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who has been, unbeknownst to her, promised to Mr. Nick once she turns 16 (“the age of consent” as Valentina puts its), which is only three days away. This deal was the result of Parnassus’s wish for eternal life, but now he’s about to lose his daughter, however, Mr. Nick wants to keep the game going, so he makes yet another deal. The first to five souls, by Valentina’s birthday, wins Valentina. When all hope of victory seems lost, Tony arrives on the scene, via a noose, hanging under a bridge. The discovery of Tony is a blessing for some and curse for others, as he proves to be a skilled barker and helps the troupe get their souls, but he also has his own agenda, to learn the ways of the Imaginarian and win Valentina for himself.
Gilliam gives us everything we’ve come to expect from his films. There’s more dirt, torn ragged clothing, and mismatched colour than you could ever hope to find in a non-Gilliam film. This, combined with the use of wide-angle lenses, is part of what I adore about his films. The camera gets all the right angles and brings out the best of each set and actor. Initially I felt that in some scenes the CGI faltered in quality, but then I realized that each scene in the Imaginarium is based on the works of a different painter. Some scenes are realistic, while others are cartoonish, but the important thing is that these worlds are all inhabitable, it’s easy to believe that Jude Law, as Tony, is climbing a latter into the clouds to get away from a group of angry Russians.
The casting is spot on, as Christopher Plummer gives weight and validity to the role of Parnassus. It would have been easy to see the character of Parnassus, and his show, as a joke had it been played by a less commanding actor. Heath Ledger is great, as always, even with a mask covering a majority of his face in some scenes, his performance never wanes and, just like when he played the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), he is always a commanding presence on screen. The beautiful Lily Cole caught my attention immediately as she has a unique look that works hand in hand with the wide-angle lens, even when the lens reshapes her, it still flatters her, I hope to see her in more films as she shows potential to be a true acting force. Andrew Garfield was another newcomer to me, but he held his own, even in his scenes with Ledger. He worked well as the quirky underdog who tries to impress the girl of his dreams. This was the first time I had seen Verne Troyer in a role that was not purely comedy relief, and it shows that he has the acting chops to stand out, even among this cast of great talent. Lastly, I have to mention Tom Waits, one of my favorite musicians and actors. The man always delivers, and with a pencil thin mustache, care free attitude, and a suit and hat combination fit for the devil, this may be my favorite role of his yet.
Due to the death of Heath Ledger part way through filming, drastic measures had to be taken to complete the film. Fortunately, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell came to the rescue to play the various scenes of Tony in the Imaginarium. The film appears complicated on the surface, but it does follow a logical path and can be broken down into simple ideas. When Tony enters the Imaginarium, he takes on the desired appearance of the person who’s imagination is dominant. It is explained, at one point, that if two imaginations are in the Imaginarium the stronger will overtake the weaker. Therefore, when Tony is in the Imaginarium with someone who has a stronger imagination, he looks as they want him too. If the other person has the weaker imagination, Tony looks as he wishes he did in his mind. This is a clever devise that works exceptionally well. Also, each actor who plays Tony works perfectly in the scene for which they were cast. Johnny Depp especially did a brilliant job of channeling Heath Ledger. I should also mention that there are moments in the film when Heath Ledger is channeling Johnny Depp. This was noticed, and pointed out, by Terry Gilliam during filming. There were so many freak coincidences on this film, that it seems like an outside force knew what was about to take place and made sure all the pieces fit together perfectly. Terry Gilliam became aware of this while finishing the film and even replaced his ‘A Terry Gilliam Film’ credit at the close of the film with the more appropriate, ‘A Film from Heath Ledger & Friends’.
Before writing this review, I watched The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus four times, and I notice more brilliance in it with each viewing. Initially, Terry Gilliam set out to make a fun film from scratch. After Ledger’s death, Gilliam set out to make a film that was worthy of Heath Ledger’s last performance. In the end, Gilliam succeeded at both.