You will quite likely have heard of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, probably because Heath Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose during its filming. Ledger’s death also occurred at around the same time that he was being lauded for his superb performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, further increasing the anticipation for this movie.
Without wanting to make it a recurring theme here at GeekReads, I tell you: don’t let yourself get affected by the hype. Parnassus is a clever and entertaining movie and Ledger is good in the lead role of Tony, a disgraced charity mogul being used as a pawn in a bet between Mr. Nick (the devil) and the doctor, but it’s not a performance that will win him the same accolades that he received for playing the deranged nemesis of Batman (inevitable awards given as a posthumous “tribute” notwithstanding). Nevertheless, I still much prefer Heath Ledger to Eric Bana, who can’t seem to shake off his “Australian-ess”.
The rest of the cast – including the very exotic looking and doll-like Lily Cole (Valentina), and Verne Troyer (Percy), who must be the only short-statured actor who can act if his ubiquity is anything to go by – play their roles well, and provide plenty of circus freak-show moments to keep the movie interesting. Unfortunately, the characters never quite fit together, and lack the chemistry necessary to hook you into the story emotionally. Completing the triangle with Tony and Valentina is Anton (Andrew Garfield), an orphan adopted by Dr. Parnassus, who is more annoying buffoon than viable love interest.
The look and feel is hard to describe, but the feel of the movie is dirty, gritty and gypsy-ish – the seedy bits somewhere in between past and present London, although it is set in modern times. In contrast, the bright and surreal scenes inside the Imaginarium take some getting used to, and like the characters (or maybe because of the characters) vary greatly in consistency. The movie certainly lives up to its name though, with lots of very imaginative sets, costumes and visuals.
Mention must be made of the stand-in actors – Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell and who donated their time and effort to help complete the movie (their fees are being donated to a trust fund for Ledger’s daughter, Matilda). Each of them does a marvellous job of channelling Ledger. Personally, I thought Johnny Depp did the best job.
I really do wonder how the movie would have turned out had Heath Ledger lived. The ending did feel somewhat tacked on, and I never did quite figure out whether I was supposed to like or hate Tony. Surprisingly, Parnassus is an original idea from (director) Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown, so maybe a few years down the track they’ll do a remake using the original concept.
If you do go see this, try not to think of it as “Heath’s last movie”. You’ll enjoy it more.