If it hadn’t been for the death of its star, Heath Ledger, this movie might have passed barely noticed into that netherworld designed for the movies of Terry Gilliam. The former Monty Python artist is just too eccentric when it comes to making movies. Often they are barely comprehensible, but visually sumptuous, self indulgent works which regularly get torn to shreds by critics.
It is a testimony to Ledger’s legacy and legend that this one wasn’t dismissed immediately as more of Gilliam’s hyperbole. It was seriously reviewed, and many critics – mindful that this was going down in movie history as Ledger’s last film – tried hard to be positive.
I can see why Ledger, and other noteworthy stars, wanted to work with Gilliam. His own imagination is amazing, and when he is good, he is brilliant. The trouble is that he becomes too bogged down in his own brilliance, and leaves the audience sinking in it. It’s not so much losing the plot as throwing it overboard.
In The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Gilliam takes us on a mind blowing journey through the lives of four characters – Tony, who is found hanging from a bridge; Dr Parnassus himself, incredibly old and with an imagination that can conjure up the worlds of your dreams – or nightmares; Valentina, his daughter, who is about to turn 16; and Mr Nick, who has extracted a promise from Parnassus that he can have Valentina’s soul when she turns 16.
It’s very much a fable of good and evil, innocence and corruption, and while it has been compared to the 1964 movie, The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao, starring Tony Randall, all it really shares with that movie are a traveling theatre show and some lessons learned by the audience. It is really nothing like it, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus should not be viewed as a remake.
The cast is impeccable – apart from Ledger as Tony, who mesmerises as always, there is Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus, Tom Waites as Mr Nick, and an absolutely enchanting newcomer, Lily Cole, as Valentina.
After rescuing Tony from under the bridge, the troupe are given a new lease of life by his wicked ways. He shows them how to attract more customers, and Valentina falls in love with him, but does he love her, or is he just trying to get the secret of Parnassus’ powers? The answer seems fairly obvious, since all but Ledger play him as an obviously sleazy con man.
This begs discussion. It took three actors to replace Ledger, and while they were intent on channelling him, they completely missed the subtlety of his performance. Ledger kept you guessing about Tony’s intentions – sometimes he just seemed like a really nice guy. But Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell left you in no doubt. Somehow Ledger’s ability to play innocent and dirty all at once cannot be emulated.
The tragedy is that this was his last film – but not his best film, the one we want to remember him by. Even more tragic is that this was the last time we will ever see this blazing talent again. But it is the film that shows most clearly that Ledger was the finest actor of all of them, and an irreplaceable loss to all of us.
I viewed this movie on DVD, which I paid for from my own funds.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Heath Ledger autograph:
Heath Ledger 8x10 Autographed Photo Reprint