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January 3, 2010

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Coda for Ledger shows messy life's faded magic

TERRY Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is more than a peculiar coda for Heath Ledger. It goes down in the books as another entry in Gilliam's history of remarkable production misfortunes, including the shuttering of his "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" and the tragic loss of his star, Ledger, while filming this movie.

With relatively few changes, Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown refashioned the script so that Ledger's part could be finished with three actors filling in -- Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

The result is an outlandish juggling act, teetering, creaking and breaking at the seams, but somehow holding together better than expected and better than such an extravagant farce should. It ultimately spins out of control, but one is still impressed by Gilliam's resilient skill at creating such ornate tales.

Faded glory

In modern-day London along the River Thames, Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) leads his traveling show -- including 15-year-old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) -- on a large, unwieldy horse-drawn carriage. They are a ramshackle lot of apparently faded glory, dressed in Victorian garb and covered in dirty makeup. For drunks spilling out of techno clubs, they offer stories and imagination.

When someone takes the stage, Dr Parnassus meditates and the volunteer goes through a mirror. On the other side is a world of imagination.

All who enter are eventually given a vague, symbolic choice between virtue and vice, the latter tantalizingly offered by Mr Nick (Tom Waits), a devil in a bowler hat. Those who choose well emerge from the mirror exuberant and healed; those who don't never return.

We learn that Dr Parnassus gained his powers in a deal with Mr Nick struck more than 1,000 years ago. In a second deal, he traded his immortality for youth, promising his daughter to Mr Nick when she turns 16. Arriving days before their deadline, he strikes another bargain: Dr Parnassus can keep his daughter if he can win five souls before Mr Nick does.

Charismatic, charming

While the Imaginarium strives for success, they rescue a man found hanging from a noose under a bridge -- the creepy first sight of Ledger. The troupe takes him in and he becomes useful at attracting crowds. This is Ledger as a showman. He's charismatic and charming, easily winning over volunteers. But he's also jittery from the anxiety of secrets he keeps.

Ledger's performance outside of the mirror is somewhat one-dimensional. He never got the chance to play the scenes inside the mirror -- and that's where the battle for his soul takes place.

On three separate trips into the mirror, Depp, Law and Farrell play Ledger's character. In the CGI-created fantasy world of the Imaginarium, it's a plausible shift.

For all its bizarre contraptions, Gilliam's film is essentially about a father's misdeeds coming back to haunt him. The excellent Plummer plays Parnassus with weariness, as an artist gone too long without an audience.

The result is a faded magic true to the messiness of life.


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