Even serious critics treated the death of Heath Ledger as if it was the story of “The Imaginarium”, rather than a story that was incidental to the film.
For there is only one way that Ledger’s unexpected and – perhaps – unscripted departure from the stage could be the story, and that’s in a way that none of the critics or commentators have suggested.
“The Imaginarium” is a work of genius, I think, which confirms Terry Gilliam as one of the very few directors working in and out of Britain who makes films for the big screen, rather than pumping up television dramas for a brief excursion into cinemas before they subside more comfortably onto TV and DVD.
Dr Parnassus runs a travelling theatre – a sort of superannuated Foots Barn – the centrepiece of which is a mirror. When individuals pass through its pane, their ids realise a fantasy world which leads either to redemption or perdition.
We remember where we’ve encountered the magical looking glass before. The doctor’s daughter, Valentina, is that forbidden and alluring creature, Alice emerging from the chrysalis of puberty. Her two suitors, Anton and Tony, are an emaciated Tweedledum and a rakish Tweedledee, and Parnassus himself has a dash of the wandering Jew added to the substance of the Red King (“why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream... if that there King was to wake, you’d go out – bang! – just like a candle”).
It was a sensible, logistical choice, perhaps, that led Gilliam to shoot all the reality-side sequences before the fantasy-side. But it was an extraordinary coincidence that Ledger, who played the anti-hero, Tony, died between the two.
Three times Tony goes through the mirror, and we discover three different aspects of his character. Three times Gilliam needed a different way to distinguish Tony-through-the-looking-glass from Tony-in-the-real-world.
With Ledger gone, the solution was to hand: cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as the Tonies-through-the-looking glass, and style-up their physical resemblances to Heath.
In ten years time, when sentiment about Ledger has faded, it may be argued that the accident of his star’s death propelled Gilliam to a solution that immeasurably enhanced “The Imaginarium”.
Unless, of course...
But in the making of a film which revolves around a pact with the devil, that would be a plot twist too far. One that could only happen inside the imagination of Terry Gilliam.