Heath Ledger may well be this generation’s James Dean. His career tragically cut short (though in his case more by a bad decision than by happenstance), he had a few more films than Dean, but like Dean was just reaching his peak at his death, and appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. His last few roles were among his best, and his final role in 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is no exception.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was written and directed by Terry Gilliam, with frequent collaborator Charles McKeown co-writing, and as one might suspect from both the title and the creators, it deals heavily in imagination. In fact, though it has something of a darker tone to it, it feels very similar to their earlier collaboration, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…
Dr. Parnassus is played by Christopher Plummer, who is fantastic at playing a seemingly-doddering old fool who nevertheless has a little bit more on the ball than it appears at first glance. Parnassus is hundreds of years old, and has been made immortal through a deal with “Mr. Nick” (Tom Waits), an analogue of the devil. The two have an ongoing bet on the nature of humanity: Parnassus thinks that mankind is ruled by imagination and enlightenment; Mr. Nick asserts that mankind will instead retreat to banality and comfort from fear more often than not. As played by Waits, Mr. Nick is a bit sinister, and more than a bit slimy, yet seems almost friendly to Parnassus; you almost get the feeling that playing the game with Parnassus is more important to him than actually winning.
The stage for their bet is a literal stage, the “Imaginarium” of the title. Doctor Parnassus travels from town to town, encouraging people to come up on stage and enter his magic mirror — which is genuinely magic and transports them to the field of the imagination where they can make a choice between the offerings of Parnassus and Mr. Nick. Parnassus is helped by his longtime companion Percy (Verne Troyer, who plays off Plummer quite well), his assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield) who tries to attract customers, and his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Of course, there’s a wager on her, as well…. And Parnassus’s wagers don’t seem to be in good shape at the beginning of the film, as people largely seem to be ignoring the Imaginarium. With the Imaginarium crew dressed up in Victorian theatre clothes, and the Imaginarium itself looking like an old circus cart, the reason for people passing it by becomes apparent with the ring of a cell phone. It’s the modern day, and people just don’t seem to have time for imagination anymore. Parnassus is, in effect, losing most of the wagers before they’ve even begun.
Come with me, and we’ll be… hey, wait, come back!
Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield are both relative newcomers to the screen, with only a few credits between them before this film. Both do a pretty good job. As plot-critical as Lily Cole’s role is, there isn’t a lot of meat to the character — she spends more time reacting or just sitting in the background than doing things — but there’s still enough for Cole to show a range of emotion from love, to concern, to anger. Andrew Garfield provides a bit of hope that his upcoming performance as Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man will be good, as he has to show enthusiasm, nervousness, jealousy, and indignation as Anton.
But the character who is the driving force of the film, if not precisely the main character, is Tony, a newcomer to the troupe who joins them after they rescue him from hanging. Tony, an amnesiac, is Heath Ledger’s character, and Ledger is in top form here playing the consummate showman and inveterate liar. He’s flashy, he’s quick-witted, and if you can never quite trust him, it’s still hard not to like him. Ledger died before he was able to finish the role, but fortunately, he had finished the main part — leaving only the scenes in which Tony enters the mirror-world of the Imaginarium. This allowed three of Ledger’s friends — Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell — to step into the role under the pretense that something about Tony’s nature causes him to change appearance when he enters the Imaginarium. A few lines of dialogue were all that were needed to write this change into the script and allow Ledger’s last film to be completed. (Depp, Law, and Farrell performed the role out of friendship to Ledger, and donated their salaries from the film to a trust fund for his daughter).
Having four different actors playing one role — not one character at different ages, or one character in different films, but literally the exact same role — provides an interesting and possibly unique opportunity to look at the acting. There is no variation in the quality or nature of the role, as it was all written for one actor, so any difference in portrayal is down to the actor himself. It is, therefore, something of a risky proposition for the three “Imaginarium Tonys”, as any performance that wasn’t quite true to the rest of the character would stand out more than it otherwise would. Yet all performers knock it out of the park. There are a couple spots where one can catch a certain actor’s mannerisms (particularly Johnny Depp’s sidelong glances), but there is nothing out of place. It’s often difficult to even say it would be easy to tell who was playing Tony at any given point if one didn’t already know. There appears to be a concerted effort to play the character the way Heath Ledger would have, and the effort pays off. The face of the character may change, but the character himself does not. There are four performers… but there is only one performance.
The man in the mask is, somewhat ironically, always recognizable.
Being a Terry Gilliam film, there is naturally a lot of strangeness in the appearance of the film. The world of the Imaginarium is every bit as weird and wonderful and dreamlike as would be expected. The realm of fantasy is in full force within the mirror, and extends outside it just barely enough to make the main characters seem just a bit out of place in the modern world. There aren’t many directors who can truly pull off blending the real and the surreal, but Gilliam is an accomplished master at it. This is a darker film than The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with the plot and certain characters having a much more sinister overtone, but it has a similar theme at its heart. It’s still about the importance of imagination and storytelling to mankind.
The film may not be for everyone — it’s strange, and the last act can be a little confusing — but it’s a worthy follow-up to that earlier film. It’s also a worthy final film for Heath Ledger, whose acting career included other films that could be said to deal with the role of stories and legends, from A Knight’s Tale to another Gilliam film, The Brothers Grimm. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus fits in well with those other films, reminding the audience that movies are ultimately about the story.