The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell
Running Time: 1 hr 45 mins
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: January 8, 2010

PLOT: In London, a traveling show led by Dr. Parnassus (Plummer) has people getting to see their dreams, then a stranger (Ledger) joins and things start getting messy in the battle between light and dark forces.

WHO’S IT FOR? Those looking for one last Ledger performance will be flocking to this film. Otherwise it’s strictly for Gilliam lovers. How many of them are there out there?

EXPECTATIONS: Obviously this is Ledger’s last film. I was curious to see how Depp, Law and Farrell would be added to the mix to help replace him. Then there’s Gilliam, historically I’m not a fan, though I keep wanting to be.



Heath Ledger as Tony: It takes a while to figure out the purpose Tony actually serves to this story. Is he the main character? Is he charming? Manipulating? For a while it’s just uncomfortable. Not because Ledger does a bad job, but because the character simply seems out of place.
Score: 5

Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus: He’s a good go to old man right now. He’s a mess of a man who supposedly has lived a very long time. Plus, he’s a sloppy drunk. We have no clue where his powers come from, or what exactly they are.
Score: 5

Lily Cole as Valentina: Quite beautiful, and only playing someone who is turning 16 (She’s 21 in real life). Look, I know the age of consent is 16 in London, but that doesn’t help American audiences. It’s simply uncomfortable for someone that young to play a sexual character. It’s also painful that Dr. Parnassus almost tells her the big secret a couple of times, while we already know it.
Score: 5

Verne Troyer as Percy: I don’t think Troyer can act. It’s just him reading lines. This is really too bad, because it seems most of the comedy is supposed to come from him and his interactions with Plummer.
Score: 3

Rest of Cast: Depp has a small part, Law’s is a little bigger, and Farrell comes along for the ending. It’s a seamless transition from Ledger to any of these actors. Tom Wait steals the show as Mr. Nick, otherwise known as the devil. Though we never fully understand the game that is being played.
Score: 6

TALKING: Again, every scene with Percy is flat. The discussions between Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick seems to stop just when we’ll actually start to understand something. Plus, the dream world might look good, but knowing the purpose it serves is a tad confusing.
Score: 4

SIGHTS: Gilliam has always had a great imagination, and whether we understand it or not seems secondary to him. The look of the film is the highlight. The dream world has huge ladders, big shoes, and a mountain of a staircase. Sure, it doesn’t look as clean as Avatar, but that’s never the point with Gilliam films.
Score: 7

SOUNDS: There is some beautiful violin and orchestra from Jeff Danna and Mychael Danna who did the score to the film. It goes side by side with the look of the film just perfectly.
Score: 7


BEST SCENE: The very first time this old stage rolls out onto the street of London, and the performance begins I was truly excited to see where it would go from there.

ENDING: The purpose of Tony’s whistle finally makes sense which is a nice wrinkle. And it appears people can move on fairly easily from being in Dr. Parnassus’ life.

QUESTIONS: Why is Dr. Parnassus always battling the devil? What’s the point of the images on Tony’s forehead?

REWATCHABILITY: No. I don’t think seeing this again would shed new light on anything.


In a dream sequence, there is one moment where Tony (the Depp version) is showing a woman fallen icons who live on as young immortals like Princess Di. It’s impossible not to think of Ledger joining that group now. Ideally, Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight would have been his last performance. There’s nothing terribly wrong with his acting here, but once again Gilliam has made a movie probably only he can truly understand or find very interesting.



  1. Peter says:

    Friends and I saw this film a few days ago. We concluded that the entire movie including all the characters, except his daughter, were only figments in Parnassus’s mind, including his traveling show. Parnassus was actually an old broken down man who had lost the affections of his daughter from some bad decisions he’d made in the past, perhaps involving some shady deal he’d made with criminal minds in return for success, and his daughter disavowed him as a result and gone off on her own to marry a reptuable man and have a child. Parnassus had become a homeless alcoholic and his halluciantions are what we wittness as the film.

  2. Bram says:

    So your first reaction to anything alluding to the metaphysical is to rationalize it and fit it into a comfortable linear narrative? If your interpretation would be proven right at the end of the film, I’d find it a shame. A cop-out. Ever stop to wonder about reality not being confined to rational cognition? Go join the Wiener Kreiss! Causality or synchronicity; the archetypical character dynamics remain the same, so it doesn’t really matter either way…but it seems to me you have to shoehorn all metaphysics into your day-to-day experience of reality, like the events in the film have to be justified by an excuse like ‘it was all a dream/hallucination/past-life memory!’, etc. Pity.

  3. Peter says:

    Well, there’s certainly nothing comfortably linear about this particular film, whether you rationalize it into reality from the metaphysical or not. That’s the beauty of Gilliam’s films. If you want to stay in the illusory world of dreams when you watch this particular film, have a field day. Smoking a joint beforehand would even help. Cheers.

  4. Bram says:

    Yeah, you’re right. The point is, it doesn’t matter how you interpret it, it’ll be weird and wonderful anyway. Sorry for sounding so harsh before, I actually was smoking a joint at the time, right after seeing the flick, and going all philosophy-bananas about it, and I guess I had a very angsty and pretentious reaction to your interpretation. I guess Gilliam, amongst many others, is making the point that ‘real’ or ‘fantasy’ are just arbitrary definitions of a duality that isn’t really there. No bad blood, and indeed, cheers!

  5. Bob says:

    Spoiler Alert. Well, judging the film by what is actually on the screen, towards the end of the film we DO see Parnassus’ prostration on the ground in the fantasy world turn into him prostrating on the ground by his begging cup. I think it is strongly suggested the events in the film we have just seen is all in his mind, AND I think it’s a pity. It IS a cop out and unfortunately a very Gilliam thing to do. No joints were smoked in the writing of this comment.

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