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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Movie review: Heath Ledger shines in 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

Heath Ledger in Terry Gilliam's visually striking "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."
Heath Ledger in Terry Gilliam's visually striking "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." (Liam Daniel/sony Pictures Classics)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" springs with such dizzying, dazzling force from the mind of its maker that it might as well have been titled "The Imagination of Terry Gilliam." Shot through with a bold, extravagant generosity of spirit, this journey behind the literal and figurative looking glass marks a gratifying return to form for Gilliam, whose recent films haven't quite lived up to his capacities. And, as Heath Ledger's last film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" arrives with particular poignancy, with Ledger managing to disappear into his role, while imbuing it with his singular presence and energy.

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The title character of "Parnassus," played by a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Plummer, is an ancient street performer who oversees a ragtag band of buskers who ply the streets of contemporary London, setting up their traveling stage across from pubs and shops to attract onlookers. As "Parnassus" opens, we see their metaphysical shtick in action. Having been lured on stage by Parnassus's comely daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and a young emcee named Anton (Andrew Garfield), the unsuspecting mark comes under the mind control of the preternaturally still Parnassus, who sits like a Buddha draped in mystical robes and inscrutable silence.

But beware those who venture through the mirror behind him; they will find their imaginations in a cosmic moral tug of war between Parnassus and the malign Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), the kind of devil you can't help but dance and make deals with.

The plot isn't particularly profound, although it admittedly thickens once Parnassus and Nick's history comes into clearer focus. But Gilliam infuses the story with a swirling, plunging kind of visual excitement, plucking bits and bobs from Victoriana, commedia dell'arte, modern-day boho chic and the detritus of post-industrial London to create a world of meticulously curated imagery and textures.

Most important, Gilliam has cast actors who can hold their own against his potentially overpowering visual imagination. Cole, a young fashion model blessed with ethereal beauty, strikes believable sparks with the boyish Garfield (who was so good in 2007's "Boy A"). As Parnassus's driver, factotum and perennial naysayer, Verne Troyer gets most of the movie's most cynically funny lines.

As accomplished as this merry band is, a good many filmgoers will want to see "Imaginarium" only for a glimpse of Ledger. They'll get much more than that. Once Ledger arrives on the scene -- as a mysterious stranger who unexpectedly joins the troupe -- he stays on the scene, in a performance that bears no trace of having been truncated, trimmed or torturously edited.

Gilliam enlisted Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to assist in a work-around after Ledger died, but the precise way he used them is best left as a surprise. Suffice it to say that a piece of legerdemain that might have been maudlin or too clever turns out to be organically of a piece with the spirit and themes of the movie, and unexpectedly moving. "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is an extravagant, tattered valentine -- a work of gimlet-eyed whimsy, smudge-pot elegance and improbably deep feeling.

*** PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violent images, sensuality, profanity and smoking. 122 minutes.


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