Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, ears, and mind that stunningly melds tropes from fairy tales, folk tales, and legends into a glorious whole that could one day rank among the all-time great fantasy films. Perhaps it already does. It certainly may be the definitive Gilliam film, playing with the themes that run throughout his work–the juxtaposition of a gritty, modern world with flights of fancy that range from subtle hints of magical realism to awe-inspiring fantasy sequences that plunge the viewer into a landscape of bright colors and impossible vistas; a middle-aged or old man confronting the dreams and nightmares of his youth; romance; adventure; storytelling; absurdist humor and musical numbers that hearken back to Gilliam’s Monty Python days–and elevating them to a whole new level.
Viewing Doctor Parnassus is like peering into another person’s dreams. Its plot can be as hard to follow as that of Donnie Darko or a David Lynch film, but assembling a clear and coherent plot is not the point here. This is a world ruled by dream logic. The highly observant audience member will pick up on certain thematic and symbolic connections as the film progresses, but having a fully clear picture of what is going on after only one viewing would be as difficult as grasping a fleeting cloud. The highest compliment I can pay this film is that it made me want to immediately watch it over again, though I expect that a lifetime of viewings would not be enough to uncover all of its mysteries and treasures. To its credit, while it is extremely artsy, it is not uncomfortably pretentious. It manages to remain inviting and entertaining, even at its most cryptic (which is more than can be said for some Lynch films, which as brilliant as they are, can be cold and impenetrable). Unlike some mindbending films, it is not a puzzle to be unlocked but a wave that, if you allow it to wash over you, will sweep you away to a world of wonder and enchantment, beauty and horror.
In the interest of revealing as little as possible, I will say very little about the plot except that there is a thousands-year-old man. There is a traveling show in a caravan. There is a magical mirror that takes people Elsewhere. There is a literal deal with the Devil. There is a girl, on the cusp of her sixteenth birthday, who is doomed the moment the clock strikes midnight on the fateful day. There is a boy who loves this girl with all of his heart. There is a dwarf. There is a story, the perpetual telling of which holds the universe together. And there is a man found hanging with a flute in his throat.
This man is played by Heath Ledger, in his final screen performance. Much has been written of the fact that Ledger died with his part incomplete and that Gilliam struck upon the rather ingenious notion to divide the remainder of the role among three other actors–Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. What had not been as apparent is that Ledger is actually in the majority of the film and that the three other men’s parts amount to minutes-long cameos, each of which is part of a different fantasy sequence inside The Imaginarium (watch the film for more explanation). This is a Very Good Thing, as we get to view Ledger’s last role mostly intact. Meanwhile, each scene done by a different actor works beautifully, as well, as each man is playing a riff on his regular on-and-off-screen persona, blended with Ledger’s character of Tony, which allows for a different facet of Tony to be explored in each sequence–in order, his witty side, his egotistical side, and his violent side. Ledger himself is, of course, fantastic as an enigmatic young man whose origins, motives, and morals are unclear even to himself.
Although The Dark Knight is a great showcase for Ledger’s ability to go bonkers in a role, it’s rather nice to see him doing a more restrained performance, and one that is more difficult to pull off than the Joker for a number of reasons I cannot mention, a few of which revolve around a twist that is among the reasons this film begs for repeated viewings. Either way, Tony is a perfect example of Ledger’s ability to captivate an audience and inspire empathy, while deftly hinting at a character’s darker edge.
To be honest, though, while Ledger is excellent, his is not even the best performance in a film filled with truly great performances, from Christopher Plummer as an ancient man, set in his ways, who has lived a lie for too long, to the luminous Lily Cole as Valentina, his daughter, who is by turns naive and wise beyond her years, to Tom Waits as Mr. Nick, a most gentlemanly and urbane Devil, to Andrew Garfield, as a young, impetuous, and lovestruck youth. The entire cast (yes, even Verne Troyer as the extremely diminutive Percy) fits perfectly into Gilliam’s world, where the archaic and the modern collide. They all seem slightly out of time–a step or two removed from today, which is as it should be.
Yesterday, I went to the movies on Christmas morning and was transported to places the likes of which I had never before witnessed–places with citadels shaped like enormous elephants, bridges made of gigantic high-heeled shoes, stairways carved into mountains that reach to the heavens and whose steps are twice as tall as a full-grown man. So, step forward, one and all, and experience the marvels and delights of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Just be warned, once inside, there will be a decision to be made. Make sure you choose wisely.