I now miss Heath Ledger more than ever. I previously wrote, after seeing his Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, that I mourned for the great performances that he could've given us had he lived to further realize his potential. That was his final completed performance, but not technically his final role. He died midway through re-teaming with his The Brothers Grimm director (and former Monty Python) Terry Gilliam in the dark comic fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The role he left behind was that of a mysterious stranger who joins up with the supremely odd theatre troupe of title doctor. Thanks to the story, one involving a magic mirror that allows people to enter into a world of imagination partially controlled by Dr. Parnassus, Gilliam was able to recast Ledger's role during the sequences inside the imagination. He recast it with three great actors who wanted to honor Ledger's memory, and took on the roles without payment (all three deferring their money to Ledger's daughter Matilda). Gilliam has said that many actors (including Tom Cruise) offered their services, but he wanted to "keep it family" with actors whom Ledger had befriended, therefore the casting of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to complete the role.
Dr. Parnassus is 1,000 years old, keeping secret from his 15-year-old daughter Valentina that long ago he made a deal with the Devil to give up any child born to he and the woman he was trying to woo, if the Devil would make him a younger man again. The catch being that the child wouldn't belong to the Devil until its 16th birthday, which for Valentina is quickly approaching. The doctor drinks away the days, while the Devil keeps popping in to remind him of their deal. Parnassus travels throughout England with his troupe, comprising of sleight-of-hand expert Anton, Valentina, and the dwarf Percy, who knows of the deal with the Devil, and is a kind of conscience to the doctor. One night they save the life of a young man who's been hanged from below a bridge, and the man turns out to be Tony (Ledger) who begins to act as almost a pied piper, leading more people to the Imaginarium than have ever come before. Parnassus believes Tony could be a kind of saviour, and looks to make a new deal with the Devil to try and save Valentina's life.
This story, from Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown, doesn't short for invention. Although "a deal with the Devil" stories are as old as the Devil himself, it's given a bit of a spin here in a way that stops it from ever feeling cliche. Gilliam has always been known for his distinct imagery (often in a fantasy setting), but is usually short on story. Here, he is not. I've not typically been a fan of Gilliams, even his visuals, but this movie makes me think I may need to reevaluate my feelings. Although the CGI isn't perfect, we're not always convinced that the actors and the effects are occupying the same space, the overall feel and impact of the images works the way I assume Gilliam wants it to. There's also the case of his actors seeming more believable this time around. The actors play things for real, making the fantasy (as well as the comedy) that much more effective.
That brings me to the actors as a whole. Christopher Plummer is as good as he's ever been as the ancient Dr. Parnassus, perpetually drunk and gambling. Doll faced English model Lily Cole brings a youthful energy and wonderful vulnerability to the young Valentina. And as the jealous and squirrelly, but possibly goodhearted Anton, Andrew Garfield is flawless. I wouldn't have suspected it, but one of the most interesting characters is that of the dwarf Percy, played to hilarious and heartfelt superiority by "Mini-Me" himself Verne Troyer, actually showing off that he can act. Who knew? And Tom Waits as the Devil? Couldn't be more perfect.
But, of course, no discussion of a movie with the sad circumstances surrounding it that this one had would be complete without talking about Heath Ledger and the actors charged with replacing him. Depp, Law, and Farrell all ably fill in, with their performances and casting feeling much more organic than I would've expected going into it. Ledger, though, is again the show stealer, getting us to like Tony without knowing what possibly dark secrets lie in his past. His energy and charisma lend the movie an innate watchability. He truly had come into his own as an actor, and would've, no doubt, gone on to become one of the better actors around had he not met his tragic end. Thankfully, not just The Dark Knight will remain as a tremendous, if elegiac, final testament to his talent.