Spoiler Warning: This article contains some spoilers for "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Read at your own risk.
While Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" seems to tell the tale of the director's own life and career, the knowledge of leading man Heath Ledger's tragic death makes it very difficult to view the film as anything other than a fitting tribute to a fine actor who was gone too soon. In the end, the movie is about both of these things. It is also about neither of these things. Ultimately, it's about whatever you wish, and that's exactly why "Parnassus" excels.
In a very literal sense, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is about suffering the consequences of devil dealing. The titular Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immeasurably old mystic with a sweet tooth for gambling, who happens to strike a bet with the one man you never bet against: none other than the devil himself, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). After centuries and centuries of revised betting, Parnassus makes the fateful mistake of accepting restored youth in exchange for the eternal soul of his first-born child. Parnassus swears off having children, but much to the surprise of himself and his sixty-year-old wife, a daughter is born; and on her sixteenth birthday, she will belong to Mr. Nick.
Fifteen years later, with her mother long dead from childbirth, Valentina (Lily Cole) spends her days and nights as part of her father's traveling theater troupe alongside the tiny-but-tough Percy (Verne Troyer) and young Anton (Andrew Garfield), a sleight-of-hand expert that is hopelessly in love with Parnassus' daughter. The centerpiece of the troupe's act is a modest looking but nonetheless transformative magic mirror that, when passed through, transports the traveling party to the depths of Parnassus' vibrant imagination. Once there, the traveler comes to a fork in the road: follow a path towards enlightenment or submit to carnal desire, a decision that typically leads to an ambiguous but presumably gruesome death at the hands of Mr. Nick.
Lately, times have been hard on Parnassus and his not-so-merry band of performers, as the old doctor is haunted by the knowledge that Valentina's sixteenth birthday is only days away. Additionally, the performance hasn't made meaningful money in a very long time. But both of these hardships could change thanks to the discovery of Tony (Heath Ledger), a charismatic but shady individual with the potential to revitalize Parnassus' act and save Valentina from Mr. Nick — that's assuming, of course, that Tony's heart and intentions are as pure as he says they are.
With Ledger's opening scene, Gilliam demonstrates just how uncompromising "Parnassus" truly is in the wake of the actor's death. Tony is first seen hanging by a noose over the side of Tower Bridge, a truly disturbing image given Ledger's death, but one that was nonetheless called for in the original screenplay. Gilliam definitely earns some points for his inability to shy away from his vision, even with the new layer of meaning that Ledger's passing provides.
It was difficult to watch Ledger on screen without thinking about the actor and his tragic fate. Ledger's character isn't quite a self-parody, but Tony certainly shares common traits with the Joker, easily the actor's most celebrated role. But Ledger's performance is evocative of other iconic characters as well, including but not limited to Captain Jack Sparrow and Professor Harold Hill from "The Music Man." It's an odd combination that definitely works, but the amalgamation of personas prevents Tony from becoming a truly whole character, which is only more confounded by the participation of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, the trio of actors that replaced Ledger after his death.
As surreal as it is to see Ledger in a brand new role, it's even more jarring when his character is taken over by Depp, Law and Farrell at different points in the movie. Ledger's performance is fully realized in that he plays Tony in each of the character's real world scenes with the subsequent actors handling his three trips to the Imaginarium. While each actor does a fine job honoring Ledger and his performance, it feels as though they are representing aspects of the actor rather than the character, which makes it all the more frustrating that Ledger isn't the actor to play out Tony's final moments, with that distinction going to Colin Farrell instead. Of course, Ledger was gone and therefore unable to fully round out the role, but there's still some frustration when the credits roll and it's realized that the actor won't have a chance to say a proper goodbye.
But it's the very fact that Ledger couldn't possibly participate in the ending of "Parnassus" that made this movie so powerful. Ledger's absence from the movie's final chapter is a surprising reflection of the nature of the tragedy: Heath Ledger, a brilliant actor with an astonishingly bright future ahead of him, was taken far too soon and so suddenly that we never even had a chance to say farewell — until now, that is. In that sense, "Parnassus" is a deserved, fitting and fond farewell to one of the greatest actors of our generation. Tony is not Ledger's finest performance, but it is an excellent one, even if circumstances beyond anyone's control prevented it from being fully realized.
Of course, that's just my personal experience with "Parnassus," which brings up the other beauty of this film — my interpretation is neither right nor wrong. That can be said about any reading or viewing experience, but it's an especially important facet for "Parnassus," a movie built entirely around the diversity of imagination.
Terry Gilliam gets to have a lot of fun with this premise, creating some fantastic visual treats for the audience and, clearly, for himself. The computer effects aren't necessarily revolutionary but are certainly beautiful, and the set design is similarly brilliant. But more important than the specific aesthetics of both the real and imaginary worlds of "Parnassus" are the actual events that take place, including: a Monty Python inspired singing choir of policemen; an impossibly crafted traveling performance cart; infinitely tall ladders that possibly lead to nowhere or, perhaps, everywhere; and floating flower petals that soar through the length of an illustrious world. These are just some of the wildly imaginative spectacles at play in "Parnassus," and many of them aren't even contained within the Imaginarium itself. Each element is given just enough detail so that the audience has a fairly uniform idea of what they're looking at, but what they're seeing is ambiguous enough that there are limitless levels of meaning for each viewer.
Ultimately, whether or not you fall in love with "Parnassus" is based entirely upon what you choose to glean from it. For me, this movie was about saying goodbye to Heath Ledger. For you, it might not be. For Terry Gilliam, it's probably about something that I couldn't even hazard a guess at. More so than any film I've seen in the past year, the true meaning of "Parnassus" is rooted in your own imagination. More films should strive for such creative interpretation.
Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" opens in New York City and Los Angeles on December 25, 2009. The film is released nationwide on January 8th, 2010.