Ledger’s death leaves gap in ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’
It’s possible that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus never stood a chance of realizing its potential.
Heath Ledger’s untimely death in the middle of filming led to Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell and writer/director Terry Gilliam doing their best to salvage the project. But despite their efforts, Imaginarium is a largely confused, incoherent film and fails to give Ledger the memorable send-off that he deserved.
Curiously, the film is remarkably reminiscent of Ledger’s career before The Dark Knight — experimental, off the wall and unconcerned with commercial success. The film is essentially a prolonged fever dream designed to explore the inner recesses of one’s imagination, and these fantasy sequences are both colorful and nonsensical. Most of what happens on screen makes little sense, but considering director Gilliam’s resume (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys), this confusion was probably intentional.
The film tells the story of a traveling theatre troupe led by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), whose magical mirror allows one to explore a dream world made of his innermost desires. It’s not long before the troupe rescues Tony (Ledger) from a failed suicide, and despite his checkered past, he joins Parnassus’ sideshow. Along the way, the group tackles betrayal, love triangles and a showdown with the devil (musician Tom Waits) in a battle to save the soul of Parnassus’ daughter.
As one could gather, the film has no grounding in reality and isn’t looking for one. By itself, this isn’t an awful thing; plenty of Gilliam’s own films, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, successfully pull off the weird and irrational while still retaining a decent, engaging story underneath. Where Imaginarium loses its way, however, is when Gilliam allows his fantasies to run wild over his already threadbare plot. The film is visually striking but borders on sensory overload; while it may look like a surrealist painting come to life, neither the audience nor Gilliam will likely recall its narrative purpose 20 minutes later.
Although he doesn’t appear until nearly the 30-minute mark, Ledger is predictably captivating in his limited role. But unlike his recent and most well-known role in The Dark Knight, it’s nearly impossible to become lost in this particular performance and not remain conscious of his death.
For reasons obviously out of the film’s control, it’s clearly unfinished. Ledger had yet to finish any of his scenes inside the mirror’s fantasy world before his death, so Depp, Law and Farrell all attempt to fill his shoes with mostly disorganized results. Each of the actors awkwardly attempts to imitate Ledger’s look and mannerisms, but none are able to escape Ledger’s shadow. If anything, they serve as a tragic reminder of what could have been.
Despite its faults, it’s not unreasonable to think Imaginarium could find its cult following. Waits plays a capable villain, and reality show staple Verne Troyer makes his own triumphant return to film as Parnassus’ sidekick. Despite the visuals being plotless and pointless, they are usually beautiful.
It’s likely that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will always carry the distinction of being Ledger’s final movie and little else. The story behind the film is arguably more interesting than anything offered by the film itself, and despite its faults, getting to see Ledger in one last role is still worth the investment.
If only it didn’t feel like such a missed opportunity.