This film is likely only to be remembered as Heath Ledger’s last film. Yes, Ledger had completed about half of his performance at the time of his tragic death. It is something that lingers over the film, but that is almost a shame. It takes away from what the film does manage to accomplish. The fact that it is Gilliam’s best since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and may very well be his best since The Fisher King is not something that needs to be trivialized.
The film is about a caravan that travels the streets of London. It is run by Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, unrecognizable in his make up) who is one thousand years old and has the ability to allow people to truly see inside their own imaginations. He also has a daughter named Valentina (relative newcomer Lily Cole, who I hope to see more of. A LOT more of) who is fast approaching her sixteenth birthday. However, due to a deal he made with the devil (Tom Waits), he may lost Valentina unless he can capture five souls using his imaginarium. All seems lost until he finds Tony (Heath Ledger in his final role) an amnesiac who agrees to help him and falls in love with Valentina.
Now, I will just go ahead and talk about Heath Ledger’s performance. It is probably what is most talked about in conjunction with the film. This is somewhat of a shame because Ledger does nothing to differentiate between the other performances of his career. Now, it is not bad, but this is not the farewell that people would expect. Then again, why should it be? No one involved knew that this would be the last time Ledger would be put on celluloid. The introduction of the character (in which he is found dangling under a bridge with a noose around his neck) also plays a lot differently than the filmmakers perhaps intended. Yet, for what the character requires, he still does a good job. The character is meant to be a smooth tongued charlatan who is hiding many details from his new employers (and the audience). Ledger does this well. He is so convincing when he lures people into the imaginarium that I myself felt tempted to climb in.
Also, the replacement of him with other actors never feels gimmicky. Honestly, it makes sense in context with the film. The way the transformation is explained-well, I cannot imagine it being filmed entirely by Ledger.
But what of the rest of the film? It combines the best elements of the Faust legend, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, frankly of any fantasy written since the Elizabethan era. It is quite an evocative trip to Europe. And the imaginarium does feel like a fantasy world that actually may be a fantasy world. You know what I mean. Usually, the fantasy that exists in cinema only exists on a computer and not in the mind of any living being. These worlds do. Or rather, it takes various ideas that are only presented as an abstract (reach for the clouds) and makes them literal representations.
But aside from being aesthetically pleasing, what does the film ultimately do? What it does is try to showcase hubris and desire in the best way possible. Parnassus wants merely to win. Valentina wants a normal life. Tony wants (possible spoiler here) money. Yet this is not a tragedy. The film does end on a somewhat positive note, although a few of the characters do meet horrible ends. And, as with all of Terry Gilliam’s films (even the bad ones like Tideland), it does feel personal and not merely a stock formula. The contrast between the modern world and the ancient fantasy is well done. Still, I don’t think the film is perfect, maybe because of the hype surrounding Ledger and how underwhelming it turned out to be. The final act is also quite obtuse (as opposed to merely open ended) that will anger some people. Indeed, I am not comfortable with the way it punishes characters who do not need to be punished. Also, one symbol (Tony’s flute, you will know it when you see it) goes unexplained throughout the course of the work. Is it Tony’s soul? His last attempt of redemption? We are given no clues. But Iultimately enjoyed myself and anyone who still places Brazil on a pedestal (like me) probably will find something they enjoy.