A rickety wedge of a gypsy wagon with walls a couple of stories high wobbles through modern London streets, pulled by a couple of tired horses and carrying a tired old souse playing out the role of the carny showman on pure instinct. These traveling players could have ridden right out of the medieval era on the cobblestone streets that have brought them to the waterfront pub where a rowdy bloke decides to have a little fun with these threadbare dandies, especially the succulent young moonfaced beauty (Lily Cole) he chases through the stage mirror that, like Alice before him, takes him into another world, but this is one dreamscape he’s not prepared to handle. Though it’s not exactly explained, the Imaginarium apparently offers those who step through the mylar gates visions of their own dreams, desires and creative will, but only those who do so with open minds and hearts. This bloke, barreling through with no good on his mind, isn’t coming back. “Gone,” sighs Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with a weary resignation. “Will we miss him? I don’t think so.”
You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, a steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. (The Imaginarium is also Gilliam’s first embrace of CGI as a primary tool for creating images onscreen; like any tool, both are only as good as the mind behind it, or inside it, as the case may be.) His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.
There has always been a dark, at times fatal streak, in Terry Gilliam’s fantasies and this enigmatic through-the-looking-glass odyssey suggests that surrendering oneself to imagination and creativity and storytellingâ€”and the responsibilities that comes with itâ€”is dangerous business. Gilliam should know. Throughout his career he’s battled studios for creative control and been besieged by bad luck and bad breaks that cost millions in production overruns and, in at least one case, shut down an entire film (the painful story is told quite effectively in the documentary Lost in La Mancha). It almost happened again on this production when Heath Ledger died halfway through the production. As Tony, the stranger that the troupe rescues from the end of a noose, Ledger is the engine that drives the film. Charismatic and oh-so-smooth, the handsome amnesiac steps in as the ringmaster / barker / master of ceremonies, rounding up crowds (of mostly women) for the performances and riffing a patter to hold their attention as the stage show behind him falls apart. But he’s the anti-Parnassus, a man with a criminal past and a con-man’s mind to bend stories to serve his will and his greed, figuratively and literally. (And seriously, there is something really creepy about a grown man plotting his seduction of the sweet sixteen Valentina, even if sexy-cute former fashion model Cole is comfortably of age.) With the gracious help of three marquee actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) and a little rewriting, Gilliam was able to complete the picture by having Tony transform upon his journey through the Imaginarium.
It’s an imaginative and narratively inspired solution that works for the film, both conceptually and dramatically. Gilliam’s best films ground the phantasmagorical visions in a reality specific to his story and even the wildest details resonate with the material world of the players. The landscapes of his Imaginarium may be all shades of surreal but they are solid, physical creations brought into the dream from the waking world. It’s his stories that tend to have a sketchy narrative quality, like it’s a draft or two away from completion, and his storytelling can be very messy, so caught up in the imaginative details that he loses sight of the big picture. All that rewriting only magnifies the patchwork feeling of the film and there are times where the film seems careening out of control, or at least lost in the phantasmagoria. That’s just something I accept in the Gilliam equation and forgive when the rest of the experience is so rewarding, as it is here.
“You can’t stop stories being told,” Parnassus realizes. This is a movie about the need to tell stories (culturally and perhaps, for Gilliam, personally), the rejuvenating powers of imagination in the material world and finally about Parnassus himself, a man who once thought that his storytelling was all that kept the world from collapsing. The devil may be a trickster in Gilliam’s world, but he’s not interested in corrupting the innocent, only in redeeming the haughty and the arrogant by reminding them that they are human after all, and sweeping up the irredeemably corrupt. This is Gilliam’s universe, one of benevolent creativity and unforgiving fate, and where the devil is in the details.
Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown; featuring Heath Ledger (Tony), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Parnassus), Verne Troyer (Percy), Lily Cole (Valentina), Andrew Garfield (Anton), Tom Waits (Mr. Nick), Johnny Depp (Tony, 1st transformation), Jude Law (Tony, 2nd transformation), Colin Farrell (Tony, 3rd transformation). PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking. 122 minutes.