reviewed by Marc Glassman
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Terry Gilliam, director and co-script w/Charles McKeown. Starring: Christopher Plummer (Dr. Parnassus), Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law & Colin Farrell (Tony), Lily Cole (Valentina), Tom Waits (Mr. Nick), Andrew Garfield (Anton), Verne Troyer (Percy)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a complex, beautifully designed fantasy by the immensely gifted Terry Gilliam. It is a surprising variant on that classic fable, the Deal with the Devil. Here, the Devil or Mr. Nick is played by Tom Waits, a truly appropriate choice for the role. As the good man gone wrong, Doctor Parnassus, Canada’s own Christopher Plummer is in fine—perhaps too fine—fettle, dominating scenes with his decades of scene stealing tricks. The young and gorgeous Lily Cole is unsurprisingly effective as the young and gorgeous Valentina, Parnassus’ daughter and the object of desire for the mysterious Tony.
Ah! Tony! That’s where the tale of Parnassus has immediately entered legendary status. The part of Valentina’s suitor was meant to be played by Heath Ledger. And, indeed, Ledger did perform the role until his sudden death about one third of the way into Gilliam’s shoot. The production would have closed down—a fate that had already happened to Gilliam in other circumstances when he was working on the still incomplete Don Quixote—but Ledger’s friends intervened. And what friends: Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell all volunteered to work on the project with Gilliam. All four play Tony, and quite well.
Now that couldn’t happen under normal circumstances but Parnassus is a unique film. The plot involves magic and shifting identities. Dr. Parnassus, you see, is running an old timey road show. His theatrical troupe consists of a dwarf, a magician, a sleight of hand showman and a beautiful magician’s assistant. The theatrics recall an 18th century act and so does the look of Parnassus’ stage and the troupe’s costumes. But the difference is that the show is real—Parnassus has a mirror that can genuinely transport people into a fantasy world if they plunge inside it.
That’s what happens to Parnassus’ new stagehand, Tony, again and again, as well as select members of the magic show’s audience. And it’s while Tony is in the “imaginarium,” where the most gorgeous dreams and ferocious nightmares take place, that “he” is transformed from Ledger to Farrell, Depp and Law. (And yes, it’s true—this is quite a week for Law, who also stars as Dr. Watson in the new Sherlock Holmes, which opens this holiday season, too.)
Tony has a dark secret, which gets revealed as the film progresses. So does Parnassus’ tragic tale—you don’t deal with the Devil and not get exposed! But The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus has a lovely fantastical feel that is never abandoned by Gilliam. Despite the deaths of his star during the shoot, his producer a week after the principle photography was completed and his nearly fatal car accident while the film was in post-production, Gilliam has produced his most successful film in years. Not a masterpiece but more than a curiosity, Dr. Parnassus will be a cult hit with a worldwide audience of supporters.