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article imageOp-Ed: Heath Ledger Lights up The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

By David Silverberg     Sep 6, 2009 in Entertainment
Heath Ledger's final film is a creative blend of fantasy, romance, deals with the devil and Terry Gilliam's wild vision for the unusual. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, opening December 2009, features remarkable performances, notably Ledger as Tony.
In The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, an early scene will make you gasp. Its creepy foreshadowing to Heath Ledger's unexpected death, which occurred while he was working on the film helmed by famed director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Tideland). The scene also is the first of many to display the late actor's range, depth and powerful screen presence.
The film, screening for select audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept 18 and 19, uses the classic deal-with-the-devil plot device to stage a story bursting with fantasy and fable. A trickster showman named Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) in contemporary London travels across sodden streets with his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and aides Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer). Their magic show is pedestrian to the naked eye but on closer inspection the audience step through a mirror to discover a surreal world. Picture The Adventures of Baron Munchausen meets Alice in Wonderland.
Entering the picture is the devil himself, brilliantly portrayed by a slick Tom Waits. Dr. Parnassus, as old as time itself, made a deal with the devil to achieve immortality if he offered his daughter to the demon on her 16th birthday. Now he has to convince the devil to place another wager on a different game -- who can capture the most souls , Parnassus through his window into dream worlds and the devil through his door to hell.
Heath Ledger and Lily Cole
Heath Ledger and Lily Cole in an emotional scene in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
Davis Pictures
The plot careens wildly in the first half, and there are some confusing moments relating to the powers displayed by Dr. Parnassus and his sidekick Percy. Once the film hits the 40-minute mark, though, the action is in full swing and Ledger's character Tony is sweet-talking his way onto the sideshow. Ledger takes over any scenes featuring his sly smile, as if the film is a tribute to his talent. He doesn't overemphasize Tony's neediness or even his romantic aggression; instead Ledger hits every note subtly. Gilliam lets Ledger do his thing, even if it's just a twitch of the lips or a pregnant pause.
Ledger is a physical actor, as we saw in The Dark Knight. In Imaginarium his presence can be felt even before he delivers any lines. In a scene where he argues with Anton, his controlled anger seeps into his limbs without over-dramatizing the conflict. It's poignant and telling of the greater tension between the two characters.
Because Ledger died from a drug overdose halfway through the film's shooting, several actors had to fill in for him for the rest of Gilliam's pic. Look for cameos by Johnny Depp and Jude Law in the CGI-heavy fantasy scenes. Colin Farrell plays the final Tony in an ending that ties up the loose ends. All the actors are in top-notch form, especially Farrell with desperation rocketing through his body.
Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus
Actor Christopher Plummer in Terry Gilliam's latest film
Davis Pictures
Kudos to Christopher Plummer for transforming into the shell of a man seeking a way to save his daughter. Parnassus is plagued by tough choices, and the inner conflict often spells out on Plummer's face. The actor convinces us of a man's desperate plea to make amends for past mistakes. Without Plummer and Ledger, the film's acting core would be missing key ingredients.
The plot feels disjointed in a few ways but that could be blamed on the lead actor's death and how Gilliam had to figure out how to keep the film going with other actors. Also, Percy played by Troyer (known as Mini Me to many) grates on the nerves with his lame jokes. If they were funny, fine, but the writers should have cut the humour from a character who doesn't display any penchant for humour. Anton would have been a bitter fit as the comic foil.
Director Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam on set on his latest film The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
Davis Pictures
For the cinematographer, Gilliam shoots some gorgeous scenes worth mentally bookmarking. Not only the CGI shots are lush, but also the street scenes and actor close-ups fly in the face of traditional filmmaking. Gilliam knows when to add Tom Waits as devil in a fantastical scene, but he also pulls back to allow more of the "real" scenes to carry the visual heft.
Finally, for the film nerd (and Ledger lover), watch for the late actor's final words spoken on screen. "Don't shoot the messenger," Tony tells the sideshow performers. It's another foretelling message -- Imaginarium's fate in the box office shouldn't rest on Ledger's final role, but instead on the sweeping magic Gilliam paints into his latest work.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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