At first glance, the death of Heath Ledger combined with his posthumous Oscar® for The Dark Knight would seem to overshadow his final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, an independent feature from a director whose last two films flopped both critically and commercially. But in an unexpected triumph, director Terry Gilliam shows that his limitless imagination can keep the outside world behind the theater doors and invite audiences to step inside the world he depicts on the screen.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a traveling vaudeville show no one wants in the modern day of relentless digital entertainment. With audiences uninterested in his antiquated mode of live entertainment, the immortal Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has grown weary of his unending life and his conscience is eating away at the whatever will he left. Unable to stop gambling with Mr. Nick aka the Devil (Tom Waits), Parnassus is about to lose his most valued treasure: his daughter, Valentina. Set to be lost to Mr. Nick on her fast-approaching 16th birthday, Parnassus makes a final bet: a race to five souls. Using a magic mirror to transport an audience member into a fantastical realm, Parnassus wins the soul if the participant chooses purity and resolve over temptation and indulgence. Unfortunately, in his centuries on this Earth, Parnassus has never learned effective marketing. But after inviting the mysterious yet charming Tony (Ledger) into his troupe, Parnassus may have the help he desperately needs to win the most important wager of his life.
Despite its modern-day setting, I’m sure you can already tell that this is a fairy tale in the vein of the Brothers Grimm (the real Brothers Grimm, not Gilliam’s unfortunate flop of the same name). Confident in his story, Gilliam forges ahead by wrapping his tropes in beautiful colors, spellbinding designs, and fresh ideas. His most cunning move is working around Ledger’s death. While everyone else who enters the mirror maintains their appearance, Tony physically transforms into a different body every time he enters (with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell playing his different forms) but reverts to his original form when he exits. This compromise provides a sly level symbolism to Tony’s character and you’re left wondering how the film would’ve played had Ledger lived.
While Ledger is a major character in the film, he shares the film with all the other actors rather than stealing it. The result is everyone giving strong performances and keeping Parnassus an ensemble piece, which respects the film they all signed on for rather than standing aside and letting it be Heath Ledger’s Final Picture. Andrew Garfield announces himself as a young actor to watch, Lily Cole is drop-dead gorgeous, and even Verne Troyer aka “Mini-Me” is endearing. Surprisingly, Ledger isn’t the standout among the cast. It’s Tom Waits playing the devil with such delight that as a viewer you’re tempted by him even though he’s not offering you anything.
After the misfires of The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, Terry Gilliam has returned in full force with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It demonstrates the dark fairy tale style we’ve come to love from Gilliam yet it feels fresh and new, which is the mark of a great director. You know it’s from the same man who did Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but none of those films look the same or like Parnassus yet they all bear his signature. Bolstered by a terrific cast who share the screen with Ledger rather than being dominated by his memory, Imaginarium is the next stage of Gilliam’s development as an artist. Faced with a real-world loss, Parnassus honors the legacy of Heath Ledger and celebrates the future of Terry Gilliam.
Rating —– A-