The making of Terry Gilliam’s films rarely go off without a hitch, famously it took him decades to finally make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote while The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen went massively over budget and then flopped terribly. Most tragic of all though was what took place during the making of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus however, as its star Heath Ledger died due to an overdose.
Gilliam’s solution to Ledger’s death was to cast three different actors to replace him, which within the logic of the film actually works. Gilliam has claimed that the script was only slightly changed, and though reports concerning this vary a great deal, I imagine even if Ledger had survived it would still be a deeply odd film, a mix of fantasy, action, drama and comedy that mostly works though is a little unsatisfying.
Explaining the convoluted plot in detail would take an age but the short(ish) version is that Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) used to be a weird story telling monk, but after doing a deal with the devil (Tom Waits) he’s an immortal who runs a stage show where if people go through a mirror they enter the world of their imagination. In exchange for immortality he had to promise the devil his first born child Valentina (Lily Cole) on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday, and the film starts with that being only three days away, but the devil is prepared to offer a new deal in the form of a bet – if Parnassus can obtain five souls (by getting people to voluntarily enter the mirror) he can keep Valentina.
To throw in a sort of romantic subplot Parnassus runs the show with Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer), with the former in love with Valentina, and one evening they save Tony (Heath Ledger) a suicidal man who is hanging from a bridge, and who at first can’t remember his memory. But we soon learn that he used to run a children’s charity which he stole money from, though Valentina is unaware of this and is slowly falling in love with him.
It is a fair bit more complicated than that, but that covers the story in a broad manner, and the way they deal with Ledger’s death is that each time Tony enters the mirror, and in to someone’s imagination, he’s played by either Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. These sequences are also the best in the film, I didn’t warm to Ledger’s take on Tony but surprisingly Depp, Law and Farrell are all much more engaging, perhaps it’s unfair to Ledger given what happened but at times it feels like he’s doing an impersonation of Johnny Depp (which Gilliam himself has since confirmed) and though this was pure coincidence, it’s an odd performance that didn’t quite work for me.
As you’d expect from a Gilliam film it’s often visually astonishing, and there’s a lot of humour in the film from Valentina and her father’s bantering to the stage shows they put on, while when in the imaginations of various characters there’s some gloriously strange absurdism. One sequence even sees a bunch of policemen in dresses singing a song in an attempt to recruit people, it’s the most Python-esque thing I’ve ever seen Gilliam make after the gang disbanded, and the pay off to this scene which includes a gigantic mother-figure exploding is laugh out loud funny.
Tom Waits as the devil (or Mr Nick, as he’s called here) is an alluring creation too, and quite possibly the most seductive Satan I’ve ever seen, and Waits’ performance is superb. Indeed everyone bar Ledger is on fantastic form, Lily Cole’s amusingly feisty, Andrew Garfield manages to make you feel sympathy for his character despite his whining all the time, Verne Troyer imbues Percy with a warm sense of wisdom, while Plummer as Doctor Parnassus turns in a career best.
The weird thing is that despite being a complicated and convoluted story line it also feels a little thin thematically, and needed a bit more depth. The character of Tony should have been developed more and given that Gilliam replaced Ledger with three different actors there’s no reason it couldn’t have happened, and if it had been a little less black and white as to whether he was someone who deserved Valentina’s love or not. It’s still a fascinating film, visually captivating and intriguing as hell, but it’s not quite up their with Gilliam’s best work and that it gets so close but doesn’t quite make it is a tad frustrating.