Heath Ledger’s last movie seemed to sneak in and out of theaters somewhat quietly, and I missed my chance to see it the first time around. So when it was released on DVD yesterday I jumped at the chance to check out what looked like an imaginative modern fairy tale.
Doctor Parnassus made a deal with the devil over 1,000 years ago that grants him immortality. But in exchange, his daughter belongs to the devil on her 16th birthday. He now has two days to make good on a new deal with the devil that will spare his daughter: Find five souls who will choose good over evil before the devil does.
Subjects are put to the test by entering a fantasy world created by the mind of Doctor Parnassus. They are given a choice between something self-serving and something more pure or noble.
The race to find five who will make the right choice drives much of the movie, but as is common in Terry Gilliam films, the experience is more about strangeness and spectacle than it is about plot. Fans of Gilliam’s earlier work like Brazil and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen will find “Parnassus” to be a welcome return to a style they enjoy.
The visual design of the film is very inviting. The rickety old stage-wagon of the traveling troupe and the renaissance inspired wardrobe of the performers serve up a portion of timelessness that will age the film well. The special effects of the dream-like Imaginarium are by no means realistic, but the film doesn’t require them to be. The world of the Imaginarium is filled with unexpected yet very fitting imagery. A major highlight of the movie.
Christopher Plummer delivers some of his finest (and possibly most sympathetic) work as the title character. He is supported by Heath Ledger (who turned in a fine, if not memorable performance), Tom Waits (an excellent “Gilliam-type” devil and great casting choice!) and model turned actress Lily Cole. But the standout performer for me was supporting cast member Andrew Garfield. He is the love interest of Cole and a fellow troupe member and figures prominently in the story. Every scene he was in seemed to elevate the realism of the characters around him. His scenes seemed marked by improvisation that gave credibility to the awkwardness and emotions of his character.
As you may know, Heath Ledger died after filming only one-third of the movie. But the decision was made to move forward and recast Ledger’s role with Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who played the same character as Ledger as he traversed the dream-like Imaginarium. With a subtle change to an early scene in the film, it is quickly established that one’s personal appearance can change while inside the Imaginarium. So the transition to new actors for the same role is prepared for. Even so, the change is a bit distracting to the film, especially knowing the reason for it. Though all three guest stars perform admirably and are fun to watch.
Gilliam does not seem interested in having people understand his films from top to bottom and often leaves things unexplained. The same is true of this movie. But none of these unexplained elements are crucial to the plot and it seems as though Gilliam doesn’t want you to take his film that seriously anyway.
Thematically, this movie deals with death, morality and even the foundational nature of the universe.
It is explained early on that the existence of the universe is sustained by stories. As long as someone somewhere is telling a story, the universe will remain intact. Combine this with numerous architectural reference to Eastern religious tradition and you can take a guess at the philosophies that inspired this story. The concept of human-told stories sustaining the universe would indicate that humans are the ultimate power in existence. In another scene, the deceased are even referred to as “gods”.
Morality is murky at best and the line between good and evil is pretty blurry in this movie. These are further indications of Eastern religious influence or at least relativism in general.
The lack of logical consistency is fitting for the fairy tale nature of the story and Gilliam is probably not trying to “say” anything with this movie. But it still never hurts to recognize the weakness of relativistic philosophy when applied to anything outside of fairy tales.
This is an enjoyable movie that combines both dark themes and light-hearted fun into a modern fairy tale worth checking out. The characters and story are fairly forgettable, but the experience created by the visuals presented and the carefree atmosphere of the film is easily worth a one dollar rental. Probably a five dollar rental, too!
Rated PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.