First of all, is should be acknowledged that Terry Gilliam had a stroke of genius when he cast Tom Waits as the devil in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam has described Waits as a man who “sings about the angels with the voice of Bellezebuth.” That can’t be disputed. When the devil, or Mr. Nick as he is later referred to, asks a monk played by Christopher Plummer if he is a betting man, even a gambling addict from Las Vegas would tell the monk to stay away.
The monk takes the devil’s bet and centuries later he is now Dr Parnassus, the leader of a travelling troupe of entertainers who invite people to travel to another world through a magic portal. Once inside, participants can choose a path to illumination or be tempted by the devil. Essentially, they are gambling on people’s souls. Accompanying the doctor is Anton (Andrew Garfield) a young man from the streets, Percy (Verne Troyer) Parnassus’ close confidant, and Valentina (Lily Cole) his daughter. What the good doctor has kept from his daughter is the fact that he has made a bet with Mr. Nick involving her soul on her sixteenth birthday.
Just as Valentina birthday is closing in, the troupe find a man hanging from a bridge and choose to rescue him. The man claims to have no memory of who he is, but thanks to Parnassus’ mystical abilities, they learn that his name is Tony and a newspaper clipping tells him that he worked in charity. It turns out that Tony has some new ideas about how to attract more customers and possibly save Valentina’s soul. Unfortunately he also becomes a threat to Anton who is in love with Valentina, but she sets her eyes on Tony instead.
The bittersweet aspect of this movie is that Tony is played by Heath Ledger in his final role. As a result of Ledger’s death, Gilliam asked Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play Tony as he enters the Imaginarium three times. Overall, this solution works. Each actor brings their own touch to the role while remaining true to Ledger’s performance. It also fits very well with the story because as the story progresses you are never quite sure whether or not Tony is who he says he is or if he should be trusted.
As with all Terry Gilliam movies, a major aspect of this story is the visuals. London is beautifully shot as the doctor’s odd-looking carriage travels through its street. These characters look out of place no matter where they set up shop but it is a unique sight to see a thousand-year-old man, a clown, a dwarf, and a beautiful girl in the middle of a mall. Then things get really interesting once people go through that magic mirror. At first it seems like a set for an eight-grade play with a high budget, but eventually it turns into a mix of blue screen, CG, and built sets that are a reflection of people’s thoughts and desires. Some of these images will be familiar to fans of Gilliam’s early work for Monty Python while some of them are truly original in every sense of the word. One sequence that stands out is one during which Valentina is dancing with the devil in a dark oblivion while surrounded by floating mirror pieces.
Those visuals and grand ideas are at the same time the movie’s flaw. So many things are happening that it takes a while to understand how this mirror works in the first place and what the exact rules are concerning the gamble going on between Doctor Parnassus and the devil. That being said, this is a very original story with wonderful characters and memorable images. Hopefully Heath Ledger would be proud.