There are two moments in Terry Gilliam’s latest flight of fancy that strike a savagely nostalgic chord, and they are both (unsurprising, this) to do with Heath Ledger. The first occurs inside the eponymous Parnassus’ looking glass, which transports individuals to a realm where their imagination is brought fantastically to life. Perched by an oil-black river, a woman gasps, “Oh no, oh look,” as miniature funeral boats drift downstream, adorned with the visages of lost martyrs – James Dean, Princess Di. The woman’s companion tries to calm her: “They will be young forever, now.”
The second arresting moment comes as we’re introduced to Tony (Ledger). In one of Parnassus’ best-crafted scenes, a flash of lightning reveals a shadow on the river Thames, alerting the doc’s rag-tag crew to a man hanging by a noose beneath London Bridge. Mounting a rescue mission, the crew pull the young man to safety, administer CPR, and Tony gasps back to life.
A year after his tragic and untimely death, Heath Ledger returns for his final bow; riding a crest of hushed anticipation that has now reached fever pitch. But can anything live up to such heightened expectations? Well, frustratingly, no.
Frustrating, because Parnassus has all the markings of a classic fairytale. Infused with stunning vistas and soaring cinescapes, not to mention a plot that dabbles in some interesting philosophical ideas, Parnassus presents a world you can taste – and one that you desperately want to believe in.
Director Terry Gilliam has long cornered the market in kook, and here he’s pulled out all the stops to indulge in full-hearted whimsy. Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is past his sell-by-date. And he has every right to be – hundreds of years ago he made a deal with the devil, Mr Nick (Tom Waits), and earned himself immortality. Now, he travels through London with his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), friend Percy (Verne Troyer) and young entertainer Anton (Andrew Garfield), offering his unique ability to bring peoples’ imaginations to life in return for cash. But just as the mysterious Tony enters the crew’s lives, so does Mr Nick – and he wants Valentina for himself.
Sadly, along with Gilliam’s obsession with the anomalous and the unusual comes his usual hindrance: namely, an erratic tone that sacrifices substance for style. But the main problem also lies with Ledger himself. Setting aside the tragedy, it’s clear that the Brokeback actor was cast to bring a certain rough edge to a character always half in shadow. But Ledger just doesn’t fit Gilliam’s larger-than-life world. In contrast, Johnny Depp plays the same role when Tony steps through Parnassus’ mirror, and adds a twinkly-eyed charm that more elegantly marries the film’s tones.
Ah yes, Ledger’s stand-ins. Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell were all drafted in to play Tony when he steps through the magical looking glass (Ledger had finished shooting all of his real world scenes). But does the gimmick work? Only just. Playing aspects of Tony’s personality frees the trio from attempting arrow-straight impersonation, but the splitting of the role gives Parnassus an off-balance feel that trips it up even as it’s getting going.
So, positives? Lily Cole is fantastic, an elfin beauty who more than holds her own against Christopher Plummer in some powerfully emotional scenes. And you can’t fault the film’s ambition, with some truly memorable cinematography lingering long after the credits (London never looked cooler, or dirtier). Sadly, Parnassus’ stop-start narrative frustrates, while much of its melancholy relies on Ledger’s involvement. Still, there are those moments.
Anticipation: Gilliam’s latest is Ledger’s last. Breath. Bated. 4
Enjoyment: At times thrilling, then inexplicably middling. Still, it’s great to look at. 3
A surprisingly good Lily Cole dazzles, but Parnassus is all over the place. 2