Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Tom Waits
Director: Terry Gilliam
“A traveling theater company gives its audience much more than they were expecting.”(IMDb)
What to Expect
Deals with the Devil
Why You Should Watch It
This movie is famous for being the last project Heath Ledger was working on before his death, and gained further recognition when Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell helped bring the film to completion by playing different versions of Ledger’s character. Although I don’t know how the original story was supposed to end, I feel the changes made were an improvement from what it could have been. Just like the whimsical landscapes of the Imaginarium, the plot takes you on a fantastical journey and makes you feel transported out of time in its modern-day setting.
Rainy Day Flick (C)
This was an interesting film to revisit for me, to say the least. I was 16 when Heath Ledger died, and not much far removed in age from Lily Cole’s character, Valentina, when Imaginarium was released. Still in the throes of my posthumous obsessions, I was content to live vicariously through Valentina as Ledger’s (and Farrell’s) Tony wooed her. Watching this a decade later – admittedly, for no other reason than to pine over all the beautiful men in it – my warm fuzzies of nostalgia were intermingled with unease.
Valentina is on the cusp of turning 16. Yes, 16 is the age of consent in the UK, most US states, and much of Europe. But considering a) she’s not 16 yet, b) Tony is clearly somewhere between his late 20s and early 30s and c) her father, Parnassus (Plummer), likes to insist to everyone that she’s 12…it feels a little creepy. But what does Gilliam care about making people uncomfortable? He put Verne Troyer in blackface.
Uneasiness aside, the film does a fair job explaining itself. The Imaginarium is a portal into Parnassus’ mind, where the imaginations of the adventurer are brought to life. In it, they have to make a choice. Parnassus presents a small challenge to the person, and if they choose it, they will be enlightened with an expanded imagination. But Mr. Nick (Waits) is there, too, presenting an easier, more tantalizing choice. If the person goes with Mr. Nick, they are giving him their soul.
Doesn’t sound like a fair trade, but there you go.
Tony is a fascinating character in this. Perhaps before Heath died, he was meant to be a flawed yet well-meaning hero who eventually saves Valentina from the devil, whisking her away to a life of adventure. The movie certainly sets him up as the hero, and his consistently white wardrobe underscores it even more. But alas, he is a charlatan, using his illustrious charity as a front to traffic organs [possibly stealing money from Russian mobsters as well, but he could have been lying when he confessed to Anton (Garfield) why those men were chasing him]. He is a man so evil, he has outsmarted the devil himself. Yet, for some reason, it’s jarring to see Tony as the bad guy. Viewers anxiously wait for the moment Tony redeems himself or sees the error of his ways, but it never happens.
The Imaginarium highlights different aspects of someone by changing their face. Presumably good and innocent people present their whole selves to the world and thus do not take on a different face when they enter, such as Anton and Valentina. Tony is so two-faced that he has more than enough to spare. On the outside he is clearly a charming man, and upon his first foray through the mirror (becoming Depp), his seductive, manipulative qualities shine through. In his second excursion, Jude Law shows us Tony’s avarice. When he goes through the mirror a third time with Valentina, we see that he has taken on the face of the man in her magazine (Farrell), telling us that her imagination is in control. But then Tony’s fantasy takes over, and we are shown the fake life he lived as a philanthropist, only to be ousted by Anton. By the time he admits to his crimes, his white suit has been replaced with black.
To his credit, though, Tony does save Valentina, albeit unintentionally. His death is what releases her from Mr. Nick’s greasy hands. For the first time, Parnassus forgoes giving the choice of enlightenment and tricks Tony into choosing between life or death, turning him into the personification of the Hanged Man tarot card: a symbol of sacrifice.
After Tony’s death, Imaginarium hiccups its way to the end. The overprotective Parnassus reluctantly frees Valentina not only from the devil, but from himself as well, just as she had always dreamed. It feels abrupt, and it’s a little sad, but ultimately it’s a good ending. She finds herself with a man who really knows and cares about her, and not the player who steals children’s organs. It deviates from the audience’s expectations, and for that, I love it.