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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Ledger’s Last is Lovely

While Heath Ledger might be the story, Terry Gilliam’s imagination is the star. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is without question one of the most ambitious films of the year, tackling magic, religion, dreams, morality, fate, and the human mind all in a span of two hours. They very smoothly cover up the problem of the film’s star dying in the middle of filming with an inventive narrative device that almost makes you forget that it wasn’t meant to be this way. Just like many of Gilliam’s films, the plot gets confusing toward the end, but with terrific performances from everyone involved, and the usual Gilliam overload on mindbending imagery, it’s unlikely you’ll care. The plot isn’t the focus anyway in a film like this. Gilliam is Doctor Parnassus– he wants you to step through the mirror and see things you’ve never witnessed.

The film opens outside of a pub in London, where a mysterious traveling theater troupe appears in a caravan. The performers include a young man dressed as Hermes named Anton (Andrew Garfield), a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer), Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), and his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). A young drunkard comes out of the pub and begins heckling the performers. He throws Anton and Percy off the stage and chases Valentina around as onlookers laugh. Valentina darts into a set of reflective curtains made to look like a mirror, and the hooligan follows suit. They have entered a whole new world, one clearly distinct from the reality we’re used to, but the drunk doesn’t notice– he only has one thing on his mind. Valentina makes her escape, but he doesn’t know his way out. He gets lost, stumbles, falls, and what happens to him I wouldn’t dare spoil. It’s easily one of the best opening sequences of the year, bar none.

Parnassus’s backstory is complex and told in installments throughout the film. He used to be a monk leading a temple in telling the story that keeps the universe from unraveling. Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) arrives at the temple and forcibly seals the mouths of every monk to show Parnassus that their story is not what keeps the universe together. Parnassus disagrees– there are stories being told elsewhere with imagination and life in them that keeps sustaining. Nick makes a wager with Parnassus that people are no longer interested in stories and imagination, but rather cheap thrills and addictive junk. If Parnassus collects more souls than Nick with his storytelling method, he becomes immortal. Parnassus wins.

Then, as Parnassus ages, he desires to retain youthful looks in order to win the heart of a woman he fell in love for. Nick appears again to offer him what he wants in exchange for the following: if Parnassus has a child, at age 16 that child will belong to Nick. Parnassus reluctantly agrees. As the film begins, it is clear that Valentina turns 16 in a few days, and Parnassus has turned to alcohol to kill his sadness. Nick appears to gloat, but ends up making Parnassus a wager for old time’s sake. If Parnassus can win five souls with imagination and stories, then Nick will let Valentina go. If Nick wins… well, it’s a good thing that Valentina doesn’t know what’s in store for her.

Along their travels, they encounter a man (Heath Ledger) hanging from a bridge. With the nature of Ledger’s death still fresh in the air, this scene is more than a bit haunting. Ledger’s character, charismatic and attractive, finds ways of making Parnassus’s antique methods of storytelling more modern and compelling to today’s society. The race to five souls is on. Clearly this is a lot of plot, and I haven’t even begun to get into the twists and turns the plot takes along the way, or the worlds in which Parnassus and Nick compete to win the souls of these people, or the way in which the alternate versions of the hanging man (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law) are incorporated into the film. It’d be better to encounter them as a surprise.

As you can tell, this review includes more about the plot than I normally write. What you can’t understand until you see the film is how little I’ve actually told you. Every time anyone steps through the mirror, you are surrounded by a dazzling new world, filled with all manner of fantasy. Each person that enters finds a new world waiting for them. This is also the rare film in which the real world is just as interesting as the magical one. Christopher Plummer… well, let’s just say the fact that he received his first Academy Award nomination this year doesn’t begin to appreciate the quality of work he brings to every project he’s involved in. Tom Waits as the Satan figure is his usual charismatic gravelly-voiced self– what a wonderful casting choice. Few models do so well surrounded by great actors early in their career as Lily Cole does here; her wide expressive features radiate the innocence of a 16-year-old, and she loses it over the course of the film, both by choice and by others taking it from her. One would think she has a nice acting career ahead of her.

Finally, there’s Ledger. In his second film with Gilliam, it’s easy to see their pairing could have become a Scorsese-DiCaprio kindred spirit relationship. Ledger understands the beauty of Gilliam’s storytelling, and the importance of imagination and art in a world quickly devaluing both. Although some of Ledger’s earlier films were typical Hollywood fare, it was clear from his big breakthrough in Ten Things I Hate About You, an otherwise average Shakespeare-to-teen-comedy film, that he had the turn-of-phrase and natural charm to carry much better stories. As his career moved forward, he started doing work that obviously meant more to him, and the world finally understood that he was a character actor stuck in a leading man’s body. His performances in films like Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There, The Brothers Grimm, and even his Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight finally revealed Ledger’s depth of talent. In The Imaginarium, he plays a charming man trying to cover up his darkness within by the magic of his storytelling– if only Gilliam knew how true to life Ledger’s performance was. If Ledger is his own character, then Gilliam is obviously Parnassus: a man who feels his old style of imaginative storytelling needed spicing up with Ledger and CGI in order to reach modern audiences. Perhaps I’m biased towards Gilliam’s body of work so I can more easily overlook the confusion that surrounds the last thirty minutes or so as gallons of revelations are thrown at you along with the visual overload. It’s simply that, like Parnassus, Gilliam has very little time left but so much story to tell. Gilliam’s imaginative stories might not sustain the universe, but they do sustain an increasingly unimaginative artform.

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~ by russellhainline on February 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Ledger’s Last is Lovely”

  1. […] Visual Effects: 10. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus 9. Watchmen 8. Terminator: Salvation 7. Where the Wild Things Are 6. Harry Potter and the Half […]

  2. damn you got me amped to see this… As your review reinforces, Ledger was on a fucn role at the end of his career. All those characters he played were powerful. I would add his role in Dogtown as well, i didn’t evewn notice it was him until later in the film

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