The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

You and your mind control thinga-ma-jigomy

Can anyone other than Terry Gilliam make a film that manages to be colorful, imaginative, gritty, funny, and ironic all at the same time?  Well, yes, there are others, but Gilliam has a unique touch, seen in several of his great and wild films including Brazil, The Brothers Grimm, and his latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a mesmerizing journey through (what appears to be) the imagination.

The story involves a traveling performance troupe led by the 1,000 year-old Doctor Parnassus (played by the immortal Christopher Plummer) and which includes Anton (Andrew Garfield), Percy (Verne Troyer), and Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).  Since his days as a monk, Parnassus has made several wagers with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a personification of the Devil, and in exchange for eternal life he must relinquish his own daughter (unbeknownst to her) on her sixteenth birthday.  While traveling, the troupe finds a stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger) hanging by his neck from Blackfriars Bridge.  Claiming to have amnesia, Tony joins the troupe as a barker, and Mr. Nick soon returns with a new wager for Parnassus: if Parnassus can convert five souls to good before Mr. Nick can make them give in to greed or petty desires, he can have his daughter back. Valentina, of course, while being wild and independent, is the bargaining chip, the subject/object to be bought, sold, traded, and possessed.

The film contains the last footage of Ledger’s acting career, and it’s a strong enough film that if he had to have a final film at such a young age, I’m glad it was this one.  Three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), all good friends of Ledger, take on the role of Tony as he passes through the mirror into the Imaginarium, and Gilliam shoots them in such a way that Tony’s transformations seem like an organic part of the story and not a production issue.  The three have to do very little to look like Ledger, and they do the character justice.  Using Depp as the first was a wise directing decision: in the words of Gilliam himself, “I just thought if it works with the transition to Johnny and if the audience goes for it, they’ll follow the next two. And that’s exactly how it works.”  It does.

Christopher Plummer surpasses nearly everything he’s done, and he even gets a sequence in which he’s reverted to his youth and we’re treated to The Sound of Music Plummer for just a moment.  Lily Cole’s Valentina is a character we can all believe both Tony and Anton would be crazy about – confident, strong-willed, and mysterious in that male fantasy sort of way (which lends itself well to a fantasy film, but is problematic in the usual ways, not least of which is the ratio of women to men in the cast).

As mellowing as the ending is, it’s the only ending, and it’s the only farewell we’ll ever have from Ledger.  Thankfully, it’s Gilliam’s most solid work since Brazil, and although the loss of Ledger is devastating, maybe there’s some solace in the fact that we’re leaving him in a place so full of magic.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009); written and directed by Terry Gilliam; starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, and Lily Cole.

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