Main cast: Christopher Plummer (Dr Parnassus), Heath Ledger (Tony), Lily Cole (Valentina), Andrew Garfield (Anton), Verne Troyer (Percy), and Tom Waits (Mr Nick) with appearances by Jude Law, Colin Farrell, and Johnny Depp
Director: Terry Gilliam
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus was, according to reports, only halfway into filming when Heath Ledger kicked the bucket. Really, it won’t do in this case to make jokes about how the make-up department made Mr Ledger’s skin pallor resembles that of a cadaver, so let’s not even start. Director and script co-writer Terry Gilliam nonetheless managed to gather enough help, notably from Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, to finish filming in Mr Ledger’s place. The remaining bits and pieces of the movie are spliced together either from actual footage that Mr Ledger managed to complete or by creative studio tinkering. As you can imagine, the end result is a movie that, despite the best efforts of the people behind the movie, is rather disjointed when it comes to narrative and pacing.
Once upon a time, about a thousand years ago, the man known by the stage name Dr Parnassus was once a holy monk of some kind, leading a body of monks in what seems like a sacred ritual of storytelling. This order believed that should the story be stopped, the world would cease to exist. One day, the devil himself – you can call him Mr Nick – showed up to tempt Dr Parnassus from his responsibilities. Mr Nick succeeded, but not in the way he expected. For the next thousand years, he and Dr Parnassus will make bets with each other, each trying to outdo the other. For Mr Nick, this is a way to amuse himself. For Dr Parnassus, things are a little more serious.
In the past thousand years, not only had Mr Nick given Dr Parnassus immortality – a gift that Dr Parnassus began to regret bitterly – he had also allowed Dr Parnassus to briefly become mortal when the man fell in love. The result of the affair was Valentina. Unfortunately for Valentina, the payment for Mr Nick’s favor when it came to Dr Parnassus’s winning of her mother is the young lady herself come Valentina’s sixteenth birthday.
When the movie opens, it is present day and Valentina’s sixteenth birthday is only a few days away. She, along with the midget Percy and the stagehand Anton, is a part of her father’s traveling roadshow. Only they know that the show is not all smoke and mirror. The magic mirror, central to Dr Parnassus’s show, is actually a magical doorway into a person’s deepest desires. It is inside the mirror that the person’s soul becomes contested by Dr Parnassus and Mr Nick, via several choices offered to the person inside the mirror. If the person ends up being tempted by Mr Nick, then his soul is Mr Nick’s, that kind of thing. As Dr Parnassus desperately tries to prevent Mr Nick from taking away his daughter, Mr Nick offers him a bargain. If Dr Parnassus can claim five souls in the magic mirror before Valentina’s birthday, then Mr Nick will release his claim on Valentina.
The fun really begins when our troop encounters a man named Tony. He claims to be suffering from amnesia, but the audience is allowed to know early on that he is actually an amoral swindler who was running away from the mob after his children charity scam fell through. While on one hand his charming ways allow the show to flourish, he is like the wolf who has been charged to guard the sheep pen.
Mr Ledger only completed half the filming required, so the folks behind the movie make some adjustments here – every time Tony enters the mirror, his appearance morphs into the likeness of first Mr Depp, then Mr Law, and finally Mr Farrell. Don’t ask me why the other characters do not undergo changes in appearances when they go through the mirror because you know the answer already – the actors playing them are still alive by the end of the filming. This is just an example of one of the many inconsistencies and narrative problems caused by such emergency plugging of the film so that something can be shown to the audience at the end of the day. There are many unanswered questions in this movie. Why a person’s soul sometimes end up belonging to Mr Nick is not always clear, for example.
Still, despite the problems in the movie, this movie is still a very watchable one. One remarkable thing about this movie is that there is no clear heroic character here. It is only toward the end that the question of which character is being redeemed is revealed. While Mr Ledger gives a watered down version of his repertoire as the Joker in that movie, he nonetheless emanates the right amount of sleaze to make his character simultaneously compelling and repulsive. Christopher Plummer plays his character with aplomb, making Dr Parnassus a weak yet tragic character whose flaws are recognizably human at the end of the day. The rest of the cast is also very good. The often eccentric visual effects of this movie are also mesmerizing and gorgeous to behold.
While I would hesitate to consider The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus a great movie, it is a nonetheless interesting movie. You may need to watch it several times to get the whole picture – or think that you do, heh – so perhaps you should rent this one instead of watching it in the cinemas.