The prospect of watching The Imagiarium of Dr. Parnassus is a bittersweet one. On one hand, a Terry Gilliam film, while not all are great or even good, is always worth spending time with. On the other hand, this also happens to be the last film to feature Heath Ledger. Not only that, but it was in production when he tragically lost his life and the film had to undergo rewrites and other actors brought in to complete the performance. On the heels of Ledger's work on Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight, would this prove to bring up memories of his emerging talent or would it be a worthy swan song to his young career? Even more importantly will the movie be any good and will the character disruption cause any issues?
The good news is that the film is most definitely worth seeing, is wildly imaginative, and is one of the best cinematic mind-twisters to come along in some time. I feel no shame in saying that while I understood the movie, I also did not understand it. Terry Gilliam has crafted a visually stunning film whose through story is easy to follow, but there is a lot of nuance and elements that will take a few more viewings to understand.
We first meet Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) as his ancient carnival wagon pulls up outside of a bar. The stage lowers and his traveling sideshow troupe goes to work as drunken 20-somethings emerge from the bar. Parnassus' assistant, Anton (Andrew Garfield), emerges from behind the curtain to entice people to come and watch the show. He is soon joined by Parnassus' lovely daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and the dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer). Unfortunately, their show is seen as little more than a joke by the drunks around them and the scene turns ugly as Parnassus and his troupe are forced to make a hasty exit.
Parnassus, it turns out, is a centuries-old mystic with the ability to control minds who runs a show that centers on a magical mirror. The mirror allows people to escape into their own imagination as their fantasies become manifest on the other side. When asked about the tricks he plays, Parnassus responds these are no tricks — everything they do is deadly serious.
You see, Parnassus has been in a never-ending battle with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits in a bowler and bow tie), who is actually the devil. At stake is your very soul! That's right, Terry Gilliam has crafted a story of good versus evil, heaven versus hell, God versus Satan, and wrapped it in a tale that is his most entertaining in years (although I have yet to see Tideland) and feels small and personal while having ramifications that are all-encompassing.
Things are getting a little tense in the wagon as Mr. Nick has appeared to collect on one of their bets — the prize being Valentina's soul. Parnassus is beaten, broken, and ready to give up. However, hope is found in the visage of Tony (Heath Ledger), an amnesiac con-man saved from a hanging. Could Tony be the answer to saving Valentina's soul? What secrets does his mind hold?
The game escalates as Mr. Nick has one more bet to possibly save Valentina. Tony appears to play a major role in this as the carnival wagon rolls on in search of souls to be challenged inside the imagination-driven magic mirror.
To tell you more would run the risk of giving everything away while simultaneously getting close to the barrier of my ability to explain. This is a movie that should be discovered on its own terms. You need to see it, allow the apparent simplicity to wash over you and draw you into its more imaginative exploits. You need to see it and allow the apparent simplicity to give way to a "what just happened?" reaction as the credits roll. It is a credit to a movie if you think you understand it while also being left behind in a cloud of dust.
The performances are all very good. Christopher Plummer as the worn down old man is very effective as he does not want to lose, nor does he really seem to want to win, combined with the way he is adrift in a modern society that does not seem to be all that interested in what he has to offer. There is a subtlety to his approach that makes Parnassus a very internalized character highlighted by brief outbursts.
The rest of the troupe are quite good with Andrew Garfield making Anton rather interesting. He is naive, earnest, and willing to take action even when that is the last thing that should be done. He is joined by the dour Percy, played perfectly by Verne Troyer. Then there is Lily Cole with her oddly beautiful looks and naive innocence as Valentina. Cole brings just the right mix of innocence and intelligence to the role so that she is more than just window dressing, but someone to care about and worry where her soul may go.
Heath Ledger is the real story here. This is not as emotionally wrought as his role in Brokeback Mountain nor is it as flashy and intense as his take on the Joker, but this is still a role that showed the talents of the young actor stepping forward and showing what a true talent he was. Ledger seems to have a strong grasp on what makes this morally ambiguous fellow tick. There is a great energy in this role as it goes in unexpected directions.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the three actors who stepped in to complete the performance, allowing the film to be finished. It is explained that each time Tony goes through the mirror, his physical appearance changes. This happens three times with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell each taking a turn at the transformed Tony. Each of them does admirable work, with Farrell stealing the show.
Bottom line. In the end this is a fascinating film that has a lot going for it, from its sheer originality to Gilliam's visual inventiveness, to the strong performances. It is a movie that will mess with your head just as easily as it will fool you into believing you get it. If you like film, this is one to see. It may not change your life, but you will leave better for having had the experience.