Hidden Gems: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

By Kyle Lee

June 12, 2017

The Joker beats Spider-Man. I guarantee it!

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When I watch this movie, I miss Heath Ledger more than ever. He reached great heights with his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight, which was his final completed performance, but not technically his final role. He died midway through re-teaming with his The Brothers Grimm director (and former member of Monty Python) Terry Gilliam in the dark comic fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.

The role he left behind was that of a mysterious stranger who joins up with the supremely odd theatre troupe of the title character. Thanks to the story, one involving a magic mirror that allows people to enter into a world of imagination partially controlled by Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam was able to recast Ledger's role during the sequences inside the Imaginarium. He recast it with three great actors who wanted to honor Ledger's memory, and took on the roles without payment (all three deferring their money to Ledger's daughter Matilda). Gilliam has said that many actors (including Tom Cruise) offered their services, but he wanted to "keep it family" with actors whom Ledger had befriended, therefore casting Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to complete the role.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is 1,000 years old, keeping secret from his 15-year-old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) that he long ago made a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits) to give up any child born to him and the woman he was trying to woo, if the Devil would make him a younger man again. The catch is that the child wouldn't belong to the Devil until its 16th birthday, which for Valentina is quickly approaching.


The doctor drinks away the days, while the Devil keeps popping in to remind him of their deal. Parnassus travels throughout England with his troupe, comprised of sleight-of-hand expert Anton (Andrew Garfield), Valentina, and the dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer), who knows of the deal with the Devil and acts as a kind of sounding board and conscience to the doctor. The group is struggling, attracting very few customers, and not always happy ones at that. One night they save the life of a young man who's been hanged from below a bridge. The man turns out to be Tony (Ledger), who begins to act almost as a pied piper, leading more people to the Imaginarium than have ever come before. Parnassus believes Tony could be a kind of savior, and looks to make a new deal with the Devil to try and save Valentina's life.

This story, from Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown, isn't short on invention. Although "deal with the Devil" stories are as old as the Devil himself, it's given a bit of a spin here in a way that stops it from ever feeling like a cliché. There’s also a lot of nuance to the characters, as we initially like Tony, and so dislike the jealous antics of Anton, who obviously has a crush on Valentina, but sees the way she looks at Tony. These feelings deepen and begin to shift as the movie goes on, so that our allegiances are brought into question in a really wonderful way.

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