In one part of London tonight there is magic at work, but due to its presentation and its setting you'd be hard pressed to fathom it from appearances. Parked outside of a pub and unfurled as a stage is a mobile theatre upon which lies the so-called Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, with the doctor himself (Christopher Plummer) sitting crossed legged on a transparent pedestal, but seemingly not quite all there. His master of ceremonies, Anton (Andrew Garfield) tries to drum up business to persuade uninterested passersby up onto the stage to enter the portal to imagination, but tonight the troupe's fortunes will be decidedly mixed...
When Heath Ledger died, it was natural that his projects as yet unreleased would be the focus of a high degree of interest, especially when one of them was the blockbusting Batman movie The Dark Knight. That particular effort proved worthy of the huge anticipation it had generated, but what of the production he was shooting when he passed away? That was this Terry Gilliam film, and although Ledger had performed in over half his scenes, it was wondered whether the director would be able to complete the whole thing and still have a film that made sense and had some kind of narrative flow about it.
As it was, once audiences saw the finished result, which due to its fantasy nature had been possible to rewrite to cast three guest stars to fill in for Ledger, much of the reaction was that perhaps it wouldn't have made much sense even if its star had not tragically left it. Coherence was not this movie's strong point, and more than one viewer was pleased to have seen Ledger's final work, but unable to grasp what exactly Gilliam had been getting at: what was the point to it all? As with many of this talent's entertainments, the concerns of storytelling were paramount, as Parnassus was a weaver of tales that he did not always reach the end of, but even with that knowledge, telling a story was not the strongest aspect here.
Ledger played Tony, found hanging from a bridge apparently dead by the Imaginarium troupe and without much memory of who he is, athough he has cheated death by lodging a metal pipe in his throat to keep his airway open. Tony joins up with his rescuers, and we at first think he is a decent enough soul as he proves a shot in the arm for the business, but he has his own less than helpful motives, which in truth make an uneasy fit with the overall repsectful tone Ledger's fans might have hoped for. The business itself remains a thing of mystery even at the end, but involves Parnassus inviting customers into a dreamland where they can see their heart's desire, which in theory should improve their lives, or it would if the Devil (Tom Waits) was not lurking there behind the makeshift mirror.
The trademark Gilliam look extends to the production design, with the Imaginarium itself a ramshackle contraption, but mixed with this is some decidedly un-Gilliamesque computer animation, which may have been cheaper but ironically ends up far more jarring than seeing Tony played by the stars who stepped in once he enters the other side. Ledger casts a long shadow over this film, perhaps even more than Gilliam, who here scripted with Charles McKeown (a partnership that had developed some of his finest works), but that's not simply because of the leading man's demise. He genuinely comes across as the one actor who has a handle on all of this, as everyone else is all at sea in the director's fantasia, not that they're bad, as they all perform just as they should, it's just that they never connect with those watching. It's a bewildering film that may reward repeated viewings, but so offputting that if it were not for these people creating it, would be hard to recommend seeing twice if you didn't "get" it the first time around. Music by Jeff Danna and Mychael Danna.