Director Terry Gilliam is known for making visually stunning, epic and fantastical films such as "Brazil," "Time Bandits" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," while even his more realistic films like "The Fisher King," "12 Monkeys" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" always incorporate his unique style. The director now returns with his long awaited and somewhat troubled film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," starring the late great Heath Ledger. I only say that the picture was somewhat troubled because of the problems that arose when Ledger died half way through production otherwise the film is as visually stunning and remarkably original as anything Gilliam has ever done before. Luckily for Gilliam, the plot of the movie revolves around a paranormal mirror to an alternate-dimension and Ledger had shot all of his character's scenes in the real world before he passed, so recasting his role for only the scenes that take place in the "mirror-world" would make sense to the film story-wise. Gilliam called on his "Fear and Loathing" star, and Ledger's good friend, Johnny Depp to help out as well as accomplished actors Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play "mirror-versions" of Ledger's character in order for the director to finish the film. The result is a seamless transition that you would almost think was a creative choice on the director's part if you didn't already know about the headline-making death of the famous actor.
But the problem with the film does not lie in the sudden departure of its lead yet in the slow and often confusing way the story unfolds but at the end of the day it is still a moving and interesting experiment in filmmaking and one worth checking out. The film, which is set in the present day, is a fantastical morality tale that follows the traveling show of the mysterious Dr. Parnassus played with excellence as always by frequent Gilliam collaborator Christopher Plummer. Parnassus is a man who once won a bet with the Devil himself, and possesses the unique ability to guide the imagination of others. Many centuries ago, Dr. Parnassus won immortality in a bet that found the malevolent Mr. Nick, A.K.A. the Devil, precisely portrayed by a delightfully evil Tom Waits, coming up short. While few would be foolish enough to try their luck against the powers of darkness a second time, Dr. Parnassus did precisely that, this time trading his mortality for youth on the understanding that his firstborn would become the property of Mr. Nick when the child reaches his or her 16th birthday.
Flash-forward to the present day, and Dr. Parnassus' daughter, Valentina played by the exquisite Lily Cole, is about to celebrate her sweet sixteen. Dr. Parnassus is desperate to save his little girl from her fiery fate, and when Mr. Nick arrives to collect, the good doctor presents the Prince of Darkness with a wager too enticing to refuse. Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick will each compete to seduce five souls, with possession of Valentina going to whoever manages to complete the task first. The immortal, thousand-year-old Doctor leads a traveling theatre troupe that includes a sleight of hand expert, Anton (Andrew Garfield), and a dwarf named Percy played, of course, by tiny actor Verne Troyer. The group offers audience members a chance to go beyond reality through a magical mirror in the good Doctor's possession. It is by trapping unsuspecting souls in the mirror-world that Parnassus hopes will save his daughter's soul. When a mysterious outsider named Tony joins the troupe, played as brilliantly as always by the late Heath Ledger, Parnassus thinks that he has won the competition with the Devil, however Tony is not so quick to enter the mirror and Mr. Nick takes his prize. Now it is up to Tony, to embark through the mirror into the parallel world to rescue the girl. Once in the parallel world, actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell take over the role of Tony from Ledger and portray him with tastefulness and grace.
The acting in the film is all first-rate especially Ledger, who carries the scenes he is in with a solid bravado that fits his mysterious character perfectly. Watching the actor is both sad and glorious at the same time. I don't think I even recognized the amazing talent that was Heath Ledger in the early days of his career as he was somewhat maligned in the press as a pretty boy until his riveting supporting role in "Monster's Ball." His Academy Award nominated role in Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" made him a household name but for me it was his supporting role as the "fame-version" of Bob Dylan's personality in Todd Hayne's remarkable Dylan biopic "I'm Not There" that first made me think Ledger was more than a good actor, that he was actually a great actor. However, that all changed when the actor took on the role that would win him a posthumous Oscar transending the way we look at comic book villains on screen forever with his portrayal of the Joker in "The Dark Knight." In that one role we saw the true genius of Ledger, taking a character that we've seen portrayed several times before by several different actors and making it new, completely original and organically his own while at the same time incorporating all the best parts of the character's other incarnations. What is truly sad is that I think Ledger was just getting started and it would have been amazing to see what other interesting choices the young actor would have made if his career had continued. It's hard to really look at his performance here critically because alas he didn't get to finish it, he didn't really get to live out the arc of his character. Although Depp, Law and Farrell do excellent jobs of making the transitions seamless, the film still falls flat and perhaps hallow at points, to no fault of the actors or Gilliam himself. This film would have been a difficult endeavor for Gilliam to pull off in general and given the devastation of Ledger's loss, I'm just impressed that the director even finished the daunting film at all.
The supporting cast is all excellent here especially singer/songwriter turned actor Tom Waits who plays his role as the devil with a spark and twinkle in his eye that only he could deliver making the most unappealing character in history in some ways very human. Plummer is solid as always but perhaps a bit detached from the film leaving the audience to gravitate toward the other characters. Young ingenue Lily Cole is breathtaking and works really well in her scenes with all of the different versions of Tony. I must also mention that in a role opposite of what we are used to from the actor, "Austin Powers" star Verne Troyer, best known to audiences as Mini-Me gives a very impressive dramatic supporting performance, something I would love to see more of from the tiny actor.
But at the end of the day, although it will be overshadowed by the fact that it is Ledger's last film, this is a Terry Gilliam movie and a decent one. Not his best but very solid and interesting. Gilliam's use of envelope pushing visuals has always been the director's trademark and that is absolutely still represented here. The only problem with the film for me is that at points it seems lost, confused as to what it wants to be and that leaves some moments where the audience may become uninterested and bored with what they are watching. Again I don't blame Gilliam or the cast, I think that this is a result of the crippling loss of their star and I compliment everyone involved for finishing the movie as it must have been very difficult on them emotionally. The end result is a film that might be perhaps a bit uneven but at the same time is visually stunning and well acted by its players. While the story might loose you at points, it's not really the plot that you should be going to see this movie for. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is worth seeing for two reasons, the amazing and original filmmaking of visionary Terry Gilliam, which is in good form here and the final performance of truly one of the best actor's of his generation, the late and great Heath Ledger. For those two reasons alone, this film is worth watching.