(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2009)
It helps the conceit that in the story Ledger’s character steps through a magic mirror into another world in which he could be somewhat plausibly changed into another person. It also helps that the 3 actors filling in just happen to be very big names in the business: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
Given these circumstances, the finished film works better than it has a right to. Working with a much lower budget than before, Gilliam knows how to draw an audience in to a strange setting, one that’s familiar to fans with its ratty stage folk and tall tales that just might be true.
In the title role, Christopher Plummer, made to look ten times scragglier than usual, leads a group of show folks making their way around modern day London in a make-shift stage vehicle. The group is made up of the Doctor’s daughter (Lily Cole), a clever but neurotic magician (Andrew Garfield), and an out-spoken dwarf (Verne Troyer) who has many of the films best lines.
Plummer tells his daughter (and us) his bizarre back story (well, bizarre if you’ve never seen a Gilliam film before) involving a deal with the Devil (a terrific Tom Waits) and the darkening of his visions. When crossing a bridge in the middle of the night the traveling troupe comes across Ledger hanging from a noose. They get him down and find he’s still alive.
When he comes to the next day he asks where he is. Troyer answers: “Geographically, in the Northern Hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. Narratively, with some way to go.”
Ledger has no memory of his life before his suicide attempt so he joins the Imaginarium players, soon making changes to their set and presentation. A crumbled newspaper page blowing around the rubble of the seedy dank underworld they call home reminds Ledger of his shady background, but he continues to go along with the troupe especially after learning that the Doctor’s Imaginarium is no scam.
The film beautifully builds up to when Ledger first goes through the mirror and the transition to Johnny Depp is successfully smooth. Depp has the briefest bit of the guest replacement actors, but makes the most of it with his patented eyebrow exercises and dance moves.
Jude Law and Colin Farrell are well suited for the smarmy greedy parts of Ledger’s personality that emerge in further mirror excursions if indeed that’s what they were supposed to symbolize.
Such errant elements in the second half don’t gel well and key plot points are muddled or clumsily glossed over, but that Gilliam was able to complete this film to as coherent as it is makes up for a great deal of defects.
Both deal with wizened old men spinning legends out of their outrageous realities; performing their fables on the sideshow circuit, laying in wait for fortune or death - or both. IMAGINARIUM has a much lower budget that MUNCHAUSEN, yet it benefits from less aesthetic indulgence and its smaller scale gives it more intimacy.
It’s far from Gilliam’s best movie, and it’s far from Ledger’s best performance, but as a salvaged final project, I’m glad THE IMAGINARIUM exists.
It’s a mixed bag of a movie (and may still have been had Ledger lived), but it’s a still a fairly fun film and a fitting tribute. At the end we are told that this is “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.” I know it's lame to say that 'it's the thought that counts', but dammit - it counts the most here.