Watching a Terry Gilliam movie is a lot like having lunch with your weird cousin Melvin. It’s been a few years, things don’t really make sense at first, but after twenty minutes you remember why you love hanging out with someone so creepy.
Gilliam’s latest film is The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a mesmerizing fantasy made infamous as the late Heath Ledger’s final film. And, like all his films before, it takes a bit of time for the audience to situate itself within the bizarre world of Doctor Parnassus.
The story’s launching point is a simple fantasy concept: what if a magical theater act still traveled around modern London, struggling to find an audience?
But soon the story expands into an intricate character study as we learn that years ago, the titular Doctor Parnassus made a deal with the devil, and has spent the past 1,000 years competing for human souls. The prize: the doctor’s beautiful daughter. The Doctor’s troupe is blissfully unaware of the dark cloud that follows their wagon, a cloud in the shape of Tom Waits, who plays the devil with his usual quirky ad-libs and mischievous smirks.
Doctor Parnassus, as played by the mesmerizing Christopher Plummer, is far more nuanced than many of wiseman archetypes that appear in fantasy stories. He’s a wise old wizard who yearns to be the trickster, lax in his duties as leader because he longs to make wagers with the devil. As a result his band of actors is perpetually in shambles and his proclaimed desire of bringing the magic of storytelling to the world is hindered by his alcoholism, erratic behavior, and guilt.
Thrown into the mix is the mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger. The troupe finds him dangling from a noose under a bridge and rescues him. Waking the next morning and claiming amnesia, Tony quickly becomes part of the show, using his snake-oil charm to seduce unsuspecting women onto the stage and through the magic mirror.
Once inside the mirror, each person unconsciously builds an entire fantasy world with their mind. Tony is intrigued and follows the “clients” inside. As he does, his face is transformed by their imaginations, a fantastic gimmick conceived by Terry Gilliam after Ledger died part way through the filming schedule, allowing for Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to step in and finish the movie.
As the story unravels and Tony’s charm begins to wane, revealing something much darker underneath, Ledger’s absence is truly felt. While Colin Farrell does an amazing job as Tony in the third act, when most of Tony’s best character moments happen, it’s such a shame that Ledger missed out on the juiciest parts of his final character.
Despite this, the transitions from actor to actor are seamless, a testament to the consummate writing and directing. This is Gilliam at the top of his game. While magic gateways, twisted landscapes, impromptu musical numbers, distorted faces, and slightly over-the-top performances have been a Gilliam trademark for over two decades, in Doctor Parnassus these elements are woven together into a masterwork. There are multiple characters with multiple goals, and at the end of the movie these goals switch, turning good guys into bad guys and bad guys into innocent bystanders. Throw in endless, bizarre visuals and some dancing police officers and you have a recipe for disaster, but in the hands of Terry Gilliam, it’s a brilliant fantasy film with emotional resonance - the perfect stage for one of our best actor’s final bow.