Through a Glass Darkly
Behind the mirror with Gilliam and Ledger
by Molly Templeton
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS: Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown. Cinematography, Nicola Perorini. Editor, Mick Audsley. Music, Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna. Starring Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. 122 minutes. PG-13.
Terry Gilliam’s fantastical, inventive The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is not the first of the director’s films to have a complicated history. Most famously, Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which would’ve been his followup to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was so hounded by setbacks that it was cancelled. Parnassus nearly met the same fate: Two years ago, partway through filming, the movie lost one of its stars when Heath Ledger died suddenly. Gilliam’s initial response was to can the project. Instead, with the help of Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, Gilliam and his crew finished Parnassus, which describes itself, at the end, as “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”
It’s a lovely gesture. Parnassus is a feverish fable about an old man (Christopher Plummer) who has made one too many deals with the devil, here called Mr. Nick and played by a perfect Tom Waits. One wager was for Parnassus’ immortality; another was for love. Immortality has wearied Parnassus, the master of a ramshackle traveling theater that weaves precariously through London’s streets. He’s prone to trailing off in the middle of a story or leaving his assistants Percy (Verne Troye) and Anton (Andrew Garfield), with his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), to work what meager crowds they can lure to their peculiar stage.
Enter Tony (Ledger), whom Valentina and Anton rescue one rainy night. That Ledger enters the film on the end of a rope is deeply discomfiting, but there’s no way around it; the image of the Hanged Man haunts Parnassus throughout the film. Tony remembers nothing, and Valentina (to Anton’s chagrin) warms to him. Soon, Tony is suggesting that they modernize the show, and his questionable artistic choices bring wealthy women flocking to the stage, ready to see what’s behind Parnassus’ magic mirror.
Behind that mirror waits the reflection of each individual’s imagination, as shallow or incredible as his or her desires. While Gilliam shows the real world as cluttered, cramped and dirty — the tiny rooms of the wagon can barely fit into the frame, so crowded are they with scarves and costumes and cabinets — beyond the mirror everything is expansive and changeable. Ladders soar to the sky, a river turns into a snake and a man climbs stone stairs that are higher than he is tall. In these extraordinary lands, each traveler faces a choice that determines everything, at least for Parnassus and Mr. Nick, who have bet, essentially, on the character of humanity. Will we take the easy route, or will we rise to a challenge?
The mirror world is also where Gilliam pulls off a most magical feat. When Tony makes his way into the otherworld, he is not himself; Depp, Law and Farrell play other facets of the character. It makes more sense than it ought, and it seems entirely like what should have happened behind the mirror, rather than what had to happen due to a tragedy.
Parnassus sags in the middle, tangled in Tony’s real-world secrets, and its title character mostly mutters and drinks, leaving the youngsters to pick up the pieces. Garfield is strong as a young man learning his own capabilities, and Cole — a former model with a striking, cherubic face — has such a presence that Val comes across as more complex than she’s written. Ledger imbues Tony with a certain wily, cornered-fox air that brings light and heat to the film when it begins to droop. It’s not the role of a lifetime, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of, either. Parnassus wasn’t meant to be Ledger’s finale. It’s a journey into Gilliam’s own magic-mirror world, and a feast on the ideas about storytelling, sacrifice, vanity, love, choice and family that nestle there. As with the mirror, your own imagination has to supply part of the experience, which makes me suspect that this trip will only get richer should you opt to take it again.