Friday, January 18, 2008

In Theaters: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Image, as usual, from
Tim Burton’s film of Steven Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD is the most fun I’ve had at a movie theater this holiday season (or rather just-past holiday season), which is a bit of an accomplishment. Holiday movies seem to divvy up into serious Oscar bait and agonizing attempts at family entertainment, so something as ghoulishly pleasant as this is a wonderful surprise. Sure, this film’s been hyped substantially, gotten great reviews and a Golden Globe or two, but I still wasn’t quite expecting to feel as enthusiastic, as downright giddy as the film made me. Sure, it’s a dark and sad tale of revenge and tragedy and cannibalism, but Sondheim’s original musical/operetta achieved a near-perfect mix of horror and gallows humor, and Burton and screenwriter John Logan appear to have gotten the recipe right as well.

Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, returns from London after a long exile, a sentence imposed on him by the less-than-honorable Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who levied a bogus charge on the man to get at his lovely young wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly.) In the ensuing 15 years, Lucy has disappeared and her daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has become Turpin’s ward/prisoner. Sweeney, planning a gruesome revenge, rents a room from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a frazzled woman who sells, by her own admission, the worst meat pies in London. Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), a sailor who rescued Sweeney at sea, happens by Johanna’s window and instantly falls in love with her, and tries to come up with a plan to rescue the girl from Turpin and his weaselly accomplice Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). In the midst of this, Sweeney ends up killing a rival who intends to blackmail him, and decides he can cut quite a few throats on his way to the judge’s. Mrs. Lovett, pondering what to do with the body, works out that Sweeney’s victims will make an excellent supply of fresh meat, and so a truly diabolical partnership is formed.

Sondheim’s musical was not the first take on the material (which may or may not be based on a true story) by far, but it’s become the most well-recognized, not to mention just plain beloved as musical theatre. Burton was stepping on sacred ground here, and the casting of Depp and Carter- two very distinguished non-singers- was cause for concern. But there’s method to the madness, and Burton seems to know what he’s doing. Both the acting and singing are cinematic, not theatrical; the characters communicate in hushes and pleas, giving things time to build. Neither Depp’s nor Carter’s singing voices are unpleasant, though they’re not really professional either (the latter seems to underplay and even gloss over some of the darker jokes in her lyrics, and to be sure the “Little Priest” number could have been much grander.) The pitch of the film is very precise, not realistic but not stagey either, blending genuine Victorian dinginess with a more artificial Grand Guignol look and feel to create an atmosphere that’s heavy on dread, but still has room for laughs. It’s a very rich mood and it creates an air of genuine uncertainty, even while the laws of revenge melodrama dictate that certain things fall into place.

I was supposed to be talking about the film in relation to the stage musical, wasn’t I? Well, it’s a lot more faithful than I expected; anyone who’s seen the original will notice obvious omissions like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” itself (a shame, that) and other numbers, but the plot unfolds pretty much as I remember it, perhaps across a few more locations to avoid being stagebound. Most of the same themes are covered, from revenge to family to forms of love both cancerous and benign. What changes there are have been made to make the story more immediate and visceral, which actually helps recapture the sense of intimacy lost when moving from stage to screen. The acting is all around splendid- Depp’s singing has a certain rock-star quality to it, Helena Bonham Carter manages both to fill out Mrs. Lovett’s costume nicely and add a twisted maternal brooding to the character- she’s competing with the memory of Angela Lansbury’s performance among fans (and with the memory of a particularly good high school performance by Ms. Wendi Butterworth for me), but she makes the part her own. Sacha Baron Cohen has a wonderful and brief role as a rival barber, and Anthony Stewart Head pops up for all of three seconds, regretfully not to sing. The one really wrong thing with the film is that the romance between Anthony and Joanna isn’t allowed to develop very much and seems rote as a result. It’s a minor sacrifice, but the young actors do what they can to compensate, and the subplot still serves its purpose in the larger story.

Tim Burton may not have made a film as excellent as this since ED WOOD back in 1994; then as now, he weds his skill at creating great visuals and a strong mood to a solid narrative and a great script. This is an amazing spectacle, full of grit and gore and song and laughter and tears. From the ingenious opening credits to the final tableau, the film remains utterly committed to a twisted and beautiful vision, not forgetting to entertain us in the process. It does right by Sondheim while working quite well on its own level, and it’s easily one of the year’s best films.

Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation by Christopher Bond
Screenplay by John Logan

Directed by Tim Burton

Grade: A

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