There is a belief among some of the public that Heath Ledger‘s last performance was the insane Joker in The Dark Knight, when actually the actor died during the making of The imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a movie later released in 2009.
This tragedy left the great director Terry Gilliam with a huge challenge since Ledger was the character the whole story revolved around.
However, what is this movie about? Well, it all begins with a rickety wagon of wandering spectacles wandering wearily through the streets of London.
Inside is Mr. Parnassus, with his helpers attempting to make some money through what are ostensibly simple illusionist and mentalist tricks.
But in reality, the man is an immortal born over a thousand years earlier, courtesy of a bet he won with the Devil, who gave him eternal life.
During all that time, civilization completely changed, leaving him a poor, miserable, unhappy elderly man.
Therefore, this gift actually turns out to be a trap, by which the Devil ensures to have a playmate to endlessly gamble with.
The latest of these bets is to bring five souls to the light or dark side, whereby the winner will get the gorgeous young Parnassus’ daughter as a prize.
Amid this millennial tug-of-war, the group of wanderers finds a boy hanging under a bridge, who is, however, miraculously still alive.
The immortal’s daughter initially seems to fall in love with him at first sight, wishing she could change life and finally have a family.
Except she soon discovers this mysterious stranger is also someone who has been cheating death for a long time, ultimately causing the devil and Parnassus to engage in an inevitable final confrontation.
The imaginarium of Terry Gilliam
There are very few rivals to Terry Gilliam‘s dream worlds in the entire cinematic tradition, uniting drama and comedy at their best in the creative imagination of this seventh-art genius.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus brings to 2009 that sadness of a past unable to return in contemporary society, so fast-paced to judge movies from even a few years earlier as obsolete.
So the magic window that, through mental power, becomes a portal to the dream world is a metaphor for the movie theater magic, where we can sometimes travel to magnificent realities out of existence.
As mentioned, this movie was the last of Heath Ledger, whom Terry Gilliam brilliantly replaced during the moments he goes through the dream portal.
At that point, other actors replace the character consisting alternately of the excellent Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
Just in this idea lies the power of imagination behind this story, where the human mind can create beautiful scenarios and terrible nightmares with no escape.
In addition, the stunning and stylish sets and costumes blend perfectly in colors and moods with the digital special effects.
Although it has never been his style, Gilliam shows he can use computer graphics equally well as veteran directors such as James Cameron, for example, on his constant quest for advancing filmmaking technology.
Finally, this dark fable’s storytelling is, as always, impeccable, touching on humanistic and historical themes within fantasy universes we have never seen before.
Like dreams, within Gilliam’s movies, it is hard to tell where reality comes to an end and begins the world made of the same stuff as dreams.
So while still sad about a promising actor’s death, let’s take some comfort at least that his cinematic life leads to a respectable conclusion.
The brightest stars in this dream world
Although we rightly remember Heath Ledger‘s sad passing, however, the stars carrying the movie are two much older actors.
The first is the extraordinary Christopher Plummer, a somewhat cunning and occasionally dumb wizard in the Gilliam tradition of characters never quite perfect in their marvelous humanity.
Parnassus is a character remaining in our hearts, an older man able to shape worlds that do not exist and yet lives almost like a bum on the streets.
Walking through the bright and dark eras of the human race, by his side is always the sympathetic demon played by Tom Waits, who also seems almost like someone in need of a friend rather than a truly evil being.
Although theoretically, he is a negative figure, it is impossible not to agree with many of his statements and how consistently successful the man always makes his point, often more human than the humans themselves.
The moments when these two magnificent actors are together on screen are undoubtedly the most beautiful peaks of the movie, telling of a thousand-year relationship of hatred/friendship that is now unbreakable.
I also want to mention Parnassus’ fellow travelers, starting with the funny and faithful sidekick Verne Troyer and the beautiful daughter Lily Cole we already saw in The Zero Theorem by Terry Gilliam.
Finally, let’s also talk about the skillful Andrew Garfield, here in a small supporting role, later to be the star of the wonderful Under the Silver Lake, which we had already discussed on this site.
I hope to have succeeded in convincing you about giving a chance to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a cinematic poem grossing well in 2009, yet I noticed it is a movie very few people talk about and recommend.