The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a fantastical morality tale, set in the present-day. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with his extraordinary travelling show "The Imaginarium" offers to members of the audience an irresistible opportunity to enter their universe of imaginations and wonders, by passing through a magical mirror. But Dr. Parnassus is cursed with a dark secret. An inveterate gambler, thousands of years ago he made a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in which he won immortality. Centuries later, on meeting his one true love, Dr. Parnassus made another deal with the devil, trading his immortality for youth, on condition that when his daughter (Lily Cole) reached her 16th birthday, she would become the property of Mr Nick. Now it is time to pay the price... In this captivating, explosive and wonderfully imaginative race against time, Dr. Parnassus must fight to save his daughter and undo the mistakes of his past once and for all!
As much as everyone has the best intentions for the memory of Heath Ledger, his incomplete appearance in Terry Gilliam’s chaotic and ultimately dispiriting The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is not a worthy final performance. Whether he inhabited a role that appeared to wring pain from her very frame (Brokeback Mountain) or delivered a blockbuster pop appearance for the ages (The Dark Knight), Ledger was a fine dramatic actor just starting to truly hit his stride.
He’s not a good match for filmmaker Terry Gilliam, whose creative concerns too often leave his actors flailing in the wake of his unhindered subconscious. Ledger’s presence, along with Matt Damon’s, got Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm made in 2005, but the result was blusterous and tone-deaf. Unfortunately The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus continues that trend.
To be fair, Ledger’s untimely death occurred early on during production, so his performance isn’t balanced. He appears as Tony, a Londoner without memory rescued from an intended death one night by the titular assemblage, a horse-drawn contraption staffed by a crew of eccentric outsiders who follow the literally ancient Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a controller of minds who masquerades as a mere illusionist.
The Imaginarium is street theatre from a century long, long gone, and it trundles through London’s streets to highlight the vulgarity of the present age. Drunks laugh at the performance of Parnassus, his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), magician Anton (Andrew Garfield) and irascible foreman Percy (Verne Troyer). But those coaxed into a magic mirror centre-stage find themselves in the mind of Parnassus, a Catherine Wheel of imagination where their dreams and desires are brought to life.
The venerable seer is trying to steer them towards a noble choice, but the Devil (Tom Waits at his most irascible) competes with Parnassus for their allegiance. This besuited Beelzebub also has designs on Valentina, who was promised to him by Parnassus on the event of her looming 16th birthday. Naturally her father is worried, but frankly the model with the heart-shaped face and the endless legs is, like so many Gilliam gambits, just a visual aid. Befitting someone whose previous credit with the abysmal St Trinian’s remake, her performance is scratchy; no amount of paternal generosity can account for her presence.
Much happens but little eventuates. Gilliam’s earlier films, such as Brazil, used to be almost compact in how they allied visual craft to storytelling momentum. Now his characters ricochet from scene to scene, barely heeding what’s just been said or witnessed. Ledger’s Tony, revealed as something of a confidence man, repeatedly ventures inside the mirror himself, and one ach occasion he’s played by a different actor. Of the three – Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell – it’s the former who’s most at ease in the Lewis Carroll meets Salvador Dali landscape.
The entire venture is a self-serving tribute to Gilliam’s creativity. Like the director, Parnassus is a rare and gifted man in a degraded era that doesn’t respect him; the increasingly canny Tony the producer trying to exploit his talents. Yet the film’s very existence shows that Gilliam is not exactly downtrodden, while also reminding you that his furious mash-up of high strung mood and engorged imagery doesn’t actually add up to a great deal.