The men in the mir­ror

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Terry Gil­liam, the vet­eran film di­rec­tor who cut his teeth as the an­i­ma­tion wizard of tele­vi­sion’s leg­endary Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus, has flirted with ge­nius through­out his ca­reer and bed­ded her from time to time. In The Imag­i­nar­ium of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus, he comes damn near to mak­ing an hon­est woman of her.

Gil­liam doesn’t make per­fect films. They’re too chaotic and im­pul­sive for that. Par­nas­sus has its share of an­noy­ing self-in­dul­gences and lapses in fo­cus. But this is a movie about the imagination, and there are two sep­a­rate live cur­rents of in­spi­ra­tion at work here, ei­ther one of which would dis­tin­guish it from the pack. One is the vis­ual in­ven­tive­ness that Gil­liam has been flex­ing and hon­ing through­out his ca­reer. The other is the re­source­ful­ness with which he ad­justed to the tragedy of the death of his lead­ing man, Heath Ledger.

Ledger died of an ac­ci­den­tal over­dose of pre­scrip­tion drugs in Jan­uary 2008, in the mid­dle of shoot­ing. At first a dev­as­tated Gil­liam was ready to throw in the towel. But he was per­suaded to go on, and his so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of the

The Imag­i­nar­ium of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus, show­biz fan­tasy, rated PG-13, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 3.5 chiles

loss of his star was in­spired, haunt­ing, and pow­er­ful. He brought in three ac­tors to play dif­fer­ent as­pects of the sud­denly un­tenanted char­ac­ter. All are close friends of Ledger and of Gil­liam, all sim­i­lar in type, all ma­jor stars and top per­form­ers in their own right: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Far­rell.

The de­vice in the film that makes this sleight-of-hand pos­si­ble is a magic mir­ror, part of the set of a trav­el­ing show — the Imag­i­nar­ium of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus— that lum­bers around the seedy parts of Lon­don in a fan­tas­tic horse-drawn wagon. Doc­tor Par­nas­sus (a sly, the­atri­cal Christo­pher Plum­mer) is an age­less show­man who has made a Faus­tian pact with the devil (an en­gag­ing TomWaits), du­el­ing through the cen­turies with Mr. Nick over the winning of souls for good or evil. The Doc­tor’s com­pany is made up of his daugh­ter, Valentina (Lily Cole); his shill An­ton (An­drew Garfield); and a feisty dwarf side­kick named Percy (Verne Troyer). With Valentina’s 16th birth­day a cou­ple of days away, and her soul pledged to the devil upon that mile­stone, Par­nas­sus en­ters into a fi­nal wa­ger with his old ad­ver­sary to try to save her. The first to col­lect five souls by her birth­day wins the bet.

Par­nas­sus’ show is a sort of trav­el­ing fun house where au­di­ence mem­bers are en­ticed onto a stage that folds down at the back of the wagon and of­fered a taste of their dreams. When they pass through the magic mir­ror, they find them­selves in a sur­real won­der­land where they ac­cess their fan­tasies through the mind of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus. There are three fan­tasy episodes, in­volv­ing dif­fer­ent cus­tomers of the Imag­i­nar­ium; and th­ese se­quences, which had been planned for the end of the shoot­ing sched­ule, are the ones hosted by the all-star cast of sub­sti­tutes.

The tran­si­tions are so smooth that at first you only have the vague sense that some­thing is dif­fer­ent. “Boy, he looks a lot like Johnny Depp in that shot!” Then you re­al­ize that it is Johnny Depp. (Depp ap­par­ently filmed his part in one day, dur­ing a de­lay in the sched­ule of Pub­lic En­e­mies. Part of the brain­storm be­hind us­ing three ac­tors was that stars with the stature to step in for Ledger would be work­ing and only avail­able for the briefest of stints.) The same seam­less­ness fol­lows with Law and Far­rell, each made up and cos­tumed so as to slip into the role with min­i­mal dis­tur­bance. The de­vice works so well that it could have been the plan from the out­set, rather than in­spi­ra­tion born of des­per­ate cir­cum­stances.

Ledger and his back­ups play Tony, a shady, charis­matic sort with a du­bi­ous past that in­volves Rus­sian gang­sters and fore­shad­ows a dark turn to his char­ac­ter. He en­ters the pic­ture lit­er­ally at the end of his rope. He is dis­cov­ered hang­ing by his neck from a noose be­neath a Lon­don bridge. Tony is res­cued by the Doc­tor’s team, and he joins the com­pany, re­vi­tal­iz­ing the show with mod­ern ideas of show­man­ship. Ledger’s per­for­mance is re­mark­able, crafty, funny, and sin­is­ter— an in­spired piece of char­ac­ter work that un­der­scores what a ver­sa­tile and in­ven­tive ac­tor he was.

Story and pac­ing are not Gil­liam’s strong suits, and there are flabby stretches that slow down the movie. But his vis­ual in­tel­li­gence al­ways saves the day. When we pass through the magic mir­ror, we are in an en­chanted world where lad­ders stretch to the clouds, hills roll in a most un­usual way, and dreams take un­ex­pected turns.

The story of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus, a show­man who uses his imagination to match wits with the devil, can eas­ily be read as a cel­e­bra­tion of Terry Gil­liam’s own life and work. He’s a maker of magic who has butted heads with Hol­ly­wood and its for­mu­las for most of his ca­reer, es­chew­ing ex­plo­sions and car chases and witty repar­tee in the face of dan­ger and choos­ing in­stead the kind of free-as­so­ci­a­tion whimsy that only the un­fet­tered mind can pro­duce. The Imag­i­nar­ium of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus won’t please all the peo­ple all the time, but it strikes a blow for orig­i­nal­ity, in­ge­nu­ity, and imagination.

The movie is shad­owed and in­fused with the mourn­ful knowl­edge of Ledger’s demise, and it is sea­soned through­out with re­minders, some co­in­ci­den­tal, some per­haps in­serted as tributes. Over on the fan­tas­ti­cal side of the magic mir­ror, Depp’s Tony mur­murs, “Noth­ing’s per­ma­nent. Not even death.”

Al­ways look on the bright side of death: Jude Law

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