"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus", the film that Heath Ledger was filming before his untimely death, is wonderfully odd. What else would you expect from a film from Terry Gilliam? While it leans into the absurdity a bit too much and indulges too far into itself, Gilliam is still able to craft a movie that is entertaining as it is weird, with beautiful production design, fun acting performances, and a message that is hidden in the two-way mirror our characters travel into.
The movie revolves around the sideshow act of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who is known for having these magical powers and can help change people, either for better or worse. Even though he's very old, he travels with his barker, Anton (Andrew Garfield), his sideshow partner Percy (Verne Troyer) and his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). They try to make a living using her father's magical powers, which usually involves being heckled and assaulted by drunkards or little kids. Parnassus has a problem though - he may lose his daughter in a couple days, her sixteenth birthday.
A long time ago, Parnassus made a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits) for eternal life, offering his offsprings after their sixteenth birthday. Now trying to figure out how to save his daughter, the company stumbles across a man hung to death. Rescuing him and finding out his name is Tony (Ledger), Parnassus thinks he can use him to his advantage, hoping to cheat Death out of the deal they made many, many years ago.
Gilliam is known for making films based on the Monty Python crew and oddities like "Time Bandits", and this film is no exception. It is off-the-wall bonkers, and makes the viewer question everything they are seeing. However, because of that, it makes the movie much more magical than it would have been if it was told straightforward. From the beautiful scenery to awesome set designs, Gilliam is really able to transport the audience into the movie with the characters, making them feel like they have stepped into the mirror alongside its protagonists.
I think the characters here are great, and each of them are very different from one another. To achieve this, Gilliam had to direct every single actor in a different way, to portray these fantastical characters he has created. I think he does a terrific job of leading this pack, and the actors are able to fully embody the roles they are playing. Even the antagonists are so charming and fun to watch; Waits is so cynically charming and courageous that the viewer enjoys watching him on the screen.
In terms of Ledger's character here, we have to look at four different actors - Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Ledger was able to shoot all of the outdoor London segments before his devastating passing, which occupies most of the screen time. In his performance, he gives it his all, like he always does. There is something about Ledger that lets him switch up his entire persona and demeanor for all these different roles he played; one role is not like another. So, in terms of that, he is easily the standout star here. However, when we get to the other actors that portrayed his character in the Imaginarium world, they respectfully steal the show, making the character their own while also not upstaging Ledger. Even though this was a last-minute decision by Gilliam and the studios, I would go as far as to say this was a change for the better in terms of the film.
Even though the viewer has a lot of fun here with the magical elements and the wacky scenarios, the movie does really lean too far into itself. It indulges in all of the magic and mystery, even though it doesn't make sense or really needed to be there. Cool to look at and charming, for sure, but it simply didn't need to be that complex. It seems like Gilliam wanted this film to be much more than it actually was, which is unfortunate as it could have been a very great, cohesive story. I would want to say that Ledger and the other actors outshine the story, which they do do quite a bit, but after the credits roll, you sit there and wonder what you just watched.
Ledger is perhaps one of the best actors of this generation, who was unfortunately taken way too soon. But, what he leaves us is a remarkable filmography that will have a lasting impact on generations to come, and this film is no different. While it may be too wacky and indulges way too much in the mysterious magical world, this film is still very good due to Ledger's performance alongside the other actors, and I applaud everyone involved.