The devil, Mr. Nick (played by Tom Waits), you see, had come to the monastery where Parnassus believed he was keeping the world intact with his fellow monks by reading a story. Mr. Nick "proves" Parnassus wrong by stopping the monks' mouths; the world still continues. Parnassus counters that someone elsewhere has continued to tell the story, thus preserving the world. Mr. Nick wagers he can win more souls through desire than can Parnassus through stories and imagination. Parnassus wins and thus gains immortality, but his body continues to age and Mr. Nick offers him youth in order to win the heart of a woman he loves. In exchange, any child he fathers will become Mr. Nick's property when the child turned 16. At the age of 60, in a miracle reminiscent of Sarah's, the Mrs. gives birth to a daughter, Valentina(Lily Cole).
Parnassus has been reduced to performing a sort of medicine show from a decrepit wagon with Valentina and two other troupe members--barker/sleight of hand expert Anton (Andrew Garfield) and dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer)--outside the pubs of London. Mid-act, a drunkard barges onstage, crashes through the stage mirror without paying the price of admission and is thrown into a journey of the imagination that culminates in his being offered a choice between enlightenment and a pub. After he enters the pub, it explodes. Parnassus has lost another soul to Mr. Nick.
It is three days before Valentina's 16th birthday and Parnassus is depressed and drinking, having drawn the tarot card for the hanging man and is about to confess to Valentina when Mr. Nick (who, like a cat, seems to want to play with his prey) offers another wager: Parnassus can save his daughter by winning five souls before Mr. Nick can do so. On the troupe's way to the next venue, Anton spots a man dancing beneath the bridge. On closer inspection, it is a hanging man, (Heath Ledger playing Tony) whom he rescues with the help of Valentina.
Heath Ledger had previously worked with Gilliam in The Brothers Grimm. He asked to play Tony, according to Gilliam's On 12/18/2009 interview with CNN's Andrea Mineo:
he was in London working on the Joker, and at the same time he was working on a music video that he had written. They were designing animation and they needed a place to work, so I put him to work in my effects company. We had a space there and they were happily working. One day, I was showing my special effect boys and talking through the scenes, and Heath slips me this little note saying, "Can I play Tony?" And I said, "Are you serious?" He said, "Yes, I want to see this movie."Almost anyone conversant with popular culture knows that Ledger didn't live to see the movie. He died in January 2008 of an accidental overdose of prescription medicines while on hiatus before the filming, started in London, resumed in Vancouver.
Gilliam, with a history of plagued productions, was ready to give up the project, according to David Morgan's story, "Resurrecting Heath Legder's Final Film," when his daughter Amy and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini persuaded him to finish. (See also, and an interview with Gilliam on the UK site, The Last Broadcast.)
Gilliam also talked to CNN's Mineo about Johnny Depp's role in rescuing the film:
So one of the people I called was Johnny Depp, because I introduced him to Heath and they had become very close. I was commiserating with Johnny and said, "I think the film's over. I'm going home." And he said "Whatever you decide to do, I'll be there." And that's a heartening statement. That is the beginning of the process of re-imagining the film. It was quite easy to rewrite it. All the premises were there. The ideas were all there. The first scene when Johnny goes through the mirror and his face changes.That establishes the principle very clearly and the rest fell well into place.And since there were three trips behind the mirror (and perhaps because Depp was only available for a day or two, as he was filming Michael Mann's Pubic Enemies ) Jude Law and Colin Farrell play Tony, on trips two and three respectively. The rationale for the shapeshifting was elegantly accomplished by adding a scene where the initial drunk's face changes while he is within the imaginarium.
I'm amazed by Gilliam's imagination. The imaginarium is gorgeous: see the 12/18/09 photo essay "Designing the Imaginarium," from CBS News. And, despite the opinion of some other critics, I'd say the story is well told and compelling revisioning of Dr. Faustus.