Theatre in Film: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

February 15, 2017

Welcome to Part VII of Theatre in Film, our weekly feature on a film that depicts a life in the theatre. In Part VII, we examine films with biting humor, fantastical plots, and theatre family values. This week, we discuss the 2009 fantasy film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Heath Ledger and Andrew Garfield, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law

What happens:

Doctor Parnassus and his theatre troupe perform regularly around London’s pubs in their pageant wagon. Their main attraction is a mirror which leads to an “imaginarium” that transports participants to a world where they must choose self-fulfillment or ignorance. The catch? Nick, a personification of the Devil (Tom Waits), has previously granted Parnassus 1,000 years of immortality in addition to a pact of youthfulness he made with Nick to woo a woman. The pact mandates that when Parnassus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) turns 16, she belongs to Nick. To eliminate this trade, Parnassus makes a deal with Nick: whoever wins five souls first wins Valentina.

While Parnassus drunkenly deals tarot cards inside the wagon, Valentina, his magician Anton (Andrew Garfield), and his life-long partner Percy (Verne Troyer) stumble upon a hanging man, Tony (Heath Ledger), along the Thames river. They revive him, and after a few days of traveling with them, he insinuates himself into their theatrical group, offering solutions to their poverty. After Tony and Anton engage in a fisticuffs over Valentina, Tony and Valentina get pushed into the imaginarium and are followed by Tony and Dr. Parnassus. Valentina and Anton escape, and years later, so does Dr. Parnassus…only to find that Valentina and Anton are married with a daughter, leading the conventional life that Valentina always dreamed of.

Why it matters:

Despite being a simple fantasy to most audiences, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a vital film for theatre people and fans of Gilliam’s other works like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Zero Theorem, all of which are theatrical and fantastical in their own ways.

This fever dream of a film mostly focuses on Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, and Andrew Garfield’s characters, but the central character, the one whose soul is ultimately at stake, is Valentina. She represents actors who simultaneously work in entertainment and long for a life more ordinary and stable. Valentina’s life, as she lives it with her father, Percy, and Anton, is an unpredictable, chaotic, and oftentimes, dangerous mess. They barely eat, their home is a traveling pageant wagon without heat, and the people who watch their shows are pushy, drunk, and dangerous. Valentina has never known a life without performing plays, and her relationship with her father is akin to that of a director and an actor or a master and a servant.

While in her area of the wagon, Valentina flips through the pages of a contemporary magazine, stopping on a page with a family of four, lounging in their pristine living room. She cuts this out and pastes it to her wall, hiding it with a curtain.

For many actors and performers, the allure of a “normal” life is always at the back of their minds. In between shows, on the subway, drinking their morning cup of coffee (perhaps without milk or sugar because they can’t afford it), they think of pursuing something else that promises something more. Being a professional performer carries all the risks that Valentina experiences: food may be scarce, rent may be high, and the audiences may be rude or too close for comfort. What Valentina’s character shows us is that there is a path for some people outside of the theatre, but maybe it isn’t for all. She allows actors to understand why some performers might desire that life, and, ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting something different.

This film is the third film in Part VII. See below for the other films in Part VII.


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).
How about a recap from Part IV? Jump into A Chorus of Disapproval (1989).
Check out Part Vand start with An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).
Start reading Part VI with Camp (2003).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Copyright Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2009.