"The world is full of enchantment," says a character early on in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
. This statement might as well have come from the mouth of director Terry Gilliam, who has been blending fantastical elements in modern settings throughout his entire career. Only in Imaginarium
, the characters don't feel otherworldly, but achingly real. This is a result of the personal touch Gilliam brings to the film. Imaginarium
is both his commentary on Hollywood values and a cathartic love letter to those, like his star Heath Ledger, who have died too young.
follows a struggling theater troupe, led by the mysterious, thousand-year-old Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), that offers people glimpses into their own imaginations among other vaudevillian acts. When the group stumbles upon a dying drifter, eerily played by Ledger, they get just the inspiration they need. Because they saved his life, the drifter offers to help them revamp their show.
Here, through Ledger's character and his interaction with Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam comments on Hollywood interference. Like Parnassus' show, Gilliam's films (Brazil
, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
) have always seemed out of place in the contemporary world. When Ledger's character urges Parnassus to "go more modern," you can't help picturing studio executives' confrontations with Gilliam. However, Ledger's character is gentle in his criticisms. Therefore, Gilliam doesn't seem to be attacking Hollywood, but rather considering its criticisms of him and questioning his relevance as a filmmaker. Through this film, he seems to be trying to find catharsis.
Gilliam also provides the audience catharsis in his commentary on Ledger's death. Halfway through the film, Barry (Johnny Depp), one of the incarnations of Ledger's character, speaks about heroes that died too young. Pictures of James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Princess Diana float down a river behind him. He speaks of their liberation from fear and ascent into God-like immortality. Ledger fits right among them.
Ledger's performance is a source of comfort to all affected by his untimely death. It is full of humor, exuberance and charm. As great as he was, it was painful to see him as The Joker in The Dark Knight
with his face scarred and smeared with ghostly makeup. In Imaginarium
, we see his face, his genuine smile. Audiences couldn't ask for a more beautiful swan song.
These are just a few of the film's many riches. It also offers stunning visuals, a quirky sense of humor, and rich, tender performances (particularly from Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as the different versions of Ledger's character). Therefore, Gilliam should stop questioning his talent. He is even more entertaining and relevant now than ever.
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