Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Prior to his passing, Heath Ledger favored more independent features with bold characters even though he had a natural appeal to big budget, formulaic films. From his choices (MONSTER’S BALL, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, I’M NOT THERE) one can easily tell he was interested more in the acting craft than in becoming the next hot, young celebrity. It was that dedication to the craft which led to his amazing portrayal of The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008, earning him his posthumous Oscar. In his last film, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, Ledger chose another audacious indie role with a challenging storyline and an established director in Terry Gilliam. And in his performance he shows again the great talent we have lost. The film itself, however, takes time to get used to and is exhaustingly weird at the start. However, once it settles into its main storyline – also when Ledger finally enters the film – it becomes an interesting and entertaining look at the very nature of imagination. Not a minor task to undertake.
The Imaginarium of the title is a giant wagon carrying a travelling theatre troupe with a spirited young master of ceremonies in Anton (Andrew Garfield) and a costumed dwarf (Verne Troyer) ushering audience members of the show through a magic mirror. Doctor Parnasssus (played great by Christopher Plummer) uses the mirror to send the patrons on a tour of their imaginations and wildest dreams. The fact that this is a traveling theatre on a giant horse-drawn wagon makes you think this would be a period piece. Gilliam, however, places it in modern times with Parnassus as an immortal whose lived for thousands of years due to a deal with the Devil. The devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), has had ongoing wagers with Dr. Parnassus for centuries over the nature of man. The cost of one such wager, however, was the soul of Parnassus’ daughter, Valentina (the gorgeous Lily Cole). However, as Valentina’s 16th birthday approaches, the age at which the devil comes to collect, the amnesiac Tony (Heath Ledger) is found hanging by his neck under a bridge – an unsettling image given Ledger’s death during filming. Parnassus incorporates Tony into the show to sell tickets, though he is still wary of this drifter and in a final wager to save his daughter, he must collect 5 souls in his imaginarium before Mr. Nick. It is in this wager that the film makes its most profound declarations about mankind’s choices between good and evil, because in the Imaginarium, the patrons choose a path either toward some blissful realm of innocence (point for Parnassus) or a temptation of Mr. Nick’s design (point for Lucifer).
Christopher Plummer brings gravitas to the role of Parnassus, though he’s often drunk and stumbling. His wagers and discussions with Mr. Nick are underplayed, which is a missed opportunity, but Tom Waits has fun as the devil. Though I was wary at first in his early scenes, as he settled into the role, I was impressed. Andrew Garfield as Anton has some funny scenes demonstrating his unrequited love of Valentina and his jealousy when Tony arrives, and Lily Cole is beautiful but also holds her own in the scenes with Plummer, especially on realization that he has gambled her away to the Devil – tough news for anyone.
As for Heath Ledger, he plays the role of Tony with brio and panache. He wins over the women he woos to the Imaginarium and has such fun with his salesmanship that he sells it to us as well. As his identity becomes clearer, we sense he has something to hide, and Ledger plays with that as but a hint of scoundrel to make Tony a character we distrust and yet still like. As we know, Ledger passed during filming, but he’d already shot all of the scenes which took place outside the Imaginarium. He was replaced by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell in sequences occurring inside the mirror, which is ingeniously played off by the three actors as they see their reflections and are surprised by their new face. Jude Law isn’t given much to work with, and mostly seems to whine his way through the performance. Colin Farrell doesn’t seem to mesh with the Tony we know for most of the film, but has a pretty funny scene involving beating a child (always hilarious). But Johnny Depp has the best sequence in the first Imaginarium scene and he knocks it out of the park. He ushers an older woman through her imagination, and speaks his words to her so seductively, yet not sexually, that she chooses the righteous path instead of Mr. Nick’s enticement ( Tony’s last name – Sheppard). This is all the more incredible considering Depp was doing PUBLIC ENEMIES at the time, and his schedule was so constrained all his shots had to be done in one take.
It took me a while to warm up to this film, and it still has that tinge of Gilliam weirdness which is a bit of an acquired taste, but as for a last performance for Mr. Ledger, it is a respectable final curtain (though ideally THE DARK KNIGHT would have been the perfect crescendo). The film closes not as “directed by Terry Gilliam” but rather as “A Film from Heath Ledger and Friends.” A nice homage to a great actor who will be missed.