Monday, December 10, 2007

"Sweeney Todd" -- * * * *

Anyone who reads this blog on any sort of regular basis, or has spoken to me before, should be well aware of my thoughts about Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Basically, I think the Broadway musical is perhaps the greatest art I've ever seen, preferring it to virtually any piece of film or theatre. I unabashedly love the show with all my heart, and I fully expected to open my review of Tim Burton's film adaptation with a warning how you should take this review with a grain of salt since it's by an obsessed fan, and then proceed to list a few dozen problems and nitpicks. At no point did I expect what ended up being the case: Burton fucking pulled it off. He got it. It's not entirely perfect, but I was extremely pleased with almost every decision made here, and Burton shows that he completely understood the material, while managing to make it very much a Tim Burton film. Not only that, it's the first or second best of his career (I'm still somewhat partial to "Edward Scissorhands").

Opening with the horror movie-like organ from the original stage production over the Dreamworks logo, aficionados will immediately have a smile on their face. For those who aren't familiar, "Sweeney Todd" tells the story of formerly happy barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), and his transformative journey of vengeance. When our tale begins, Barker is just returning to London --alongside young, naive sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower)-- after escaping imprisonment in Australia. Sent away on a trumped-up charge, Barker was a victim of Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and his trusty henchman, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), who merely wanted Benjamin out of the picture so they could have their way with his wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly). Now a man emotionally and physically transformed by his ordeal-- he insists on being called 'Sweeney Todd' now-- Barker returns to his old shaving/barbering nook, where fellow business owner, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) informs him that his beloved Lucy killed herself after her rape by Turpin and Bamford. In addition, Turpin now has Barker's spawn, Johanna (Jayne Wisener) in his keeping as his ward, working overtime to guard her from Anthony's advances.

Herself the baker of "The Worst Pies in London," Lovett-- still smitten with Barker-- suggests that the grief-stricken man return to his old profession to simultaneous incur income, and sharpen his razory skills, eventually working his way to the judge's throat and regaining his daughter. Complications arise when Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), a rival barber, recognizes Todd/Barker from the old days and threatens to reveal his identity. Pirelli's underling, the innocent tyke Toby (Ed Sanders) eventually becomes unwittingly embroiled in Todd and Lovett's third-act plotting, and a son-like assistant to Lovett.

Depp does wonderfully as Sweeney, both killer and victim, but it's still not quite the home run I'd hoped for. His good-yet-imperfect singing completely works for the character, and his decision to play Sweeney as permanently scarred is effective, but it comes off as a little one-note. He's nicely subdued-- more than the part would seem to allow-- but personally, I was hoping for a little more emotional complexity. When Sweeney learns of the Judge's intentions for Johanna, he doesn't even flinch, a vast contrast from every other portrayal of Sweeney, where he cringes or conveys a sense of visual heartbreak. It's an interesting approach to the character, and I'm a great admirer of Depp's work here, but it's indicative of his decisions made to make Sweeney of more psychological interest than emotional.

Bonham-Carter, the cast member who people seemed to express the most concern about (myself included), winds up giving the best performance in the film. Her soft style of singing had me on guard during "The Worst Pies in London," but she does wonderfully with "Wait," her next number, and she completely had me by the time we reach "By the Sea" in the third act. She also offers perhaps the most complex interpretation of Mrs. Lovett we've seen, and by far, the most sympathetic. Sidestepping a Lupone-esque sinister approach or a Lansbury-esque daffy, madcap one, Bonham-Carter makes us fundamentally understand Mrs. Lovett and establishes her sincere feeling of heartbreak and confliction with every questionable decision she makes. Envisioning a perfect familial life down the line with Sweeney and Toby, Bonham-Carter subversively and remarkably makes Lovett the heart of the movie, a far cry from the stage show's original depiction of her as the embodiment of complex evil.

The first thoughts coming to mind about Bower and Wisener are that the former looks like Hilary Swank's prettier brother and Wisener doesn't even really speak until halfway through the movie, but they do a good job with their minimal material. Bower's looks are distracting, but his renditions of "Johanna" are excellent, and even if the characters kind of get the short shrift, this is really Sweeney and Lovett's story anyway. Rickman utilizes his actory chops, attempting to lend Turpin as much humanity as possible, but the handling of his character is my grandest disappointment in this filmic translation. Where onstage, Turpin was a conflicted monster, longing to achieve goodness once again, while indulging his lecherous, odious urges, here, he's essentially just a one-note villain (though him spying on Johanna through a hole in the wall is a nice touch). Though not in any way a professional singer-- evident during "Pretty Women"-- it works for the song, and his acting overcomes the vocal shortfall. Spall twists his mustache appropriately, sneering through virtually every line, making the most of his time on screen, particularly during "Ladies in their Sensitivities."

As Senor Pirelli, Cohen (appearing in only two scenes totaling less than ten minutes) initially incites laughter in the audience simply by being recognized as "Borat." But the more time he spends on the screen, the greater the realization of his perfect casting. Though the bulge in his pants is distracting, Cohen's broadness and over-the-top manner is completely appropriate and entirely what Pirelli is supposed to embody in his first scene. Equipped with an exaggerated Italian accent and a phonier-than-phony smile, Cohen lets Pirelli's darker nature emerge only through his eyes and his behind-the-curtain beating of Toby. In his second scene, Cohen completely turns off any comedic pretension and makes Pirelli's immediate threat evident. It's a character that needs to turn on a dime, an Cohen plays both scenes equally well. Rather than mooching off of goodwill from "Borat," he establishes here once again his ability for varied character work and potential in headlining a film.

Starting with CG-infused opening credits resembling the ones opening his "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (this time with blood in the place of chocolate), "Sweeney" always feels like a Burton film, but one that works in tandem with Sondheim's musical's intricacies, rather than just an excuse for Burton to indulge his trademark impulses. While his lust for excess blood, pale makeup and ridiculously-detailed production design are all here, they never overwhelm the material. Remarkably, Burton makes the material seem inherently cinematic, that the uninitiated might presume they were envisioned for the big screen. Even though every shot looks like a painting, Burton shows restraint with the musical numbers, acknowledging that most of them are one or two character pieces with just singing in a room. He makes them gripping to watch without resorting to montage and often without leaving the room. Sweeney's ode to his razors, "My Friends," is largely performed through reflection in the blade, with Lovett poking her head into Sweeney's reflective vision before he tells her "leave me."

"Epiphany" and "Pretty Women" are extremely well-done in particular, but the best number (and one most resembling a big musical production number) is "By the Sea," taking place entirely in Lovett's mind. Though deviating from the on-stage depiction, Burton stays true to the intent of the song, with Lovett envisioning a perfect future with a fanciful life by the sea, and Sweeney vacantly oblivious (or at least, indifferent) to her desires, with only revenge on his mind. The songs that are cut down ("A Little Priest" and "Green Finch and Linnet Bird") are done so for the better; "Priest" would have gone on too long on screen with those extra verses, and we get the idea of "Green Finch" fairly quickly. For songs that are much more about beauty and character definition than hummability (Sondheim has never specialized in "tourist musicals"), Burton makes them surprisingly accessible and stages them in creative enough ways for even the ill-equipped masses to feel involved. The removal of all renditions of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" works perfectly in terms of what Burton's trying to do here, as in context, it would have just become eye-rolling by its last rendition. Thankfully, the theme of "Ballad" is ever present, being played/hinted at at least 10 times throughout the film.

What has been much-discussed about "Sweeney" are the throat slashings that allow Burton to indulge his blood fetish. While they are graphic, and the same audience members will cringe each time, they aren't terribly realistic (the first one gurgles and spurts like O-ren's first decapitation in "Kill Bill"). The blood looks like bright-red melted candle wax, bringing just the right amount of sylization to the violence without crossing over into pure camp. This has always been a musical that reveled in its bloody content, and Burton does the same here without going over-the-top. While the first hour only accords us one throat-slitting, the real blood-bath begins with the perfectly staged second rendition of "Johanna," where no less than five necks/bodies are laid waste to. There are two moments of grotesque violence in the last five minutes, and to spare the newbies, I'll only describe their nature. One is a gloriously cathartic wallowing in excess that completely works in its context, and the other is a wonderfully ambiguous decision by Burton and Depp that ends the film on a note of profound sadness, justification and grotesque beauty.

My review was written somewhat haphazardly, since this is perhaps the one time I might be able to be deemed "too close" to the material, and for that, I apologize. If it's still unclear to you, I generally loved Burton's "Sweeney Todd" and I think even the most pure of the purists will be pleasantly surprised to the extent to which he nailed it. It's not merely that the ingredients were too excellent to fuck-up, Burton shows immense understanding of the content, and his handling of it feels like an entirely different beast than the show-- which is a good thing. Those new to "Sweeney" will likely love what's on screen here, while the familiar pack will still revel in the excitement of Burton's interpretation. Some of the changes (Toby, Johanna and Anthony's characters being significantly younger, Asylum manager's fate) work remarkably well, while others (a few excisions from Beggar Woman's propositions) were understandable, but maybe unnecessary. Still, I couldn't even fathom a year ago, much less two weeks ago, that I would be this delighted at Burton's "Sweeney." More than being one of the best films of the year, it's a thrilling, devastating, wonderful new take on the greatest musical of all time, and to call it an occasion worth celebrating would not be hyperbole.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" opens in 750+ theaters on December 21st, and on over 2,000 screens nationwide on January 11th.

AWARDS POTENTIAL: Best Picture, Best Director (Tim Burton), Best Actor (Johnny Depp), Best Actress (Helena Bonham-Carter), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Logan), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design

ANOTHER TAKE-- A fellow "Sweeney"-phile friend of mine (we actually originally saw the revival production together), Michael Frechen, drove in from Scranton, PA, to attend the "Sweeney" screening with me. He basically agreed with me on each enthusiastic point, yet seemed oddly disappointed with the film's lack of perfection. His enthusiasm for all things "Sweeney" surpass even mine, and here is his shorter, yet much more articulate take on Burton's film:

Stephen Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd” is arguably the greatest musical of all-time—a juicy melodrama peppered with brilliantly dark comedy and two sublimely realized characters whose epic flaws elevate the musical to the level of Greek tragedy. Given Tim Burton's track record, I had major hesitations about his ability to successfully adapt Sondheim's masterpiece to film without exploiting the material for sensationalism—à la “Sleepy Hollow.” Thankfully, “Sweeney Todd” arrives as perhaps the best Broadway-to-film adaptation since Bob Fosse's “Cabaret.” Burton shows great maturity as a director, demonstrating an intuitive understanding of the material: the copious violence isn't gratuitously exploitative, and his characteristically ‘Burtonesque’ visual indulgences are finally rooted in substance. “Sweeney Todd” is Burton's most tonally and thematically unified film to date.

However, Burton doesn't play “Sweeney Todd” as a tragedy, but as a Grand Guignol horror film. Though it alters the emotional dynamic of the stage version (making the resolution of the Sweeney/Turpin story thread significantly more cathartic than the tragically ironic closing sequence), Burton's approach works as an immensely satisfying screen interpretation of Sondheim's musical. Sweeney isn't the stage version's tragically flawed anti-hero whose naïveté consigns him to destroy everything he ever loved (Depp's Sweeney is—quite literally—cut off before he can even utter the word “naïve”). Rather, Depp plays Sweeney less sympathetically, as a man so shattered by his past and devoid of life that his ruthless throat slitting of innocent men is almost perfunctory. Though we understand his motives and pity his suffering, we never really empathize with Sweeney—and perhaps this is a weakness in Depp's intensely single-minded portrait of a character more monster than man. Even in “A Little Priest” (a deliciously macabre celebration of misanthropy), Depp doesn't fully convey the joy and excitement of embracing Mrs. Lovett's enterprising idea. By this point, Sweeney has descended into madness and sworn vengeance on humanity—but he's supposed to be having a great time while doing it.

Conversely, Helena Bonham-Carter crafts an enormously sympathetic Mrs. Lovett—never emerging as the manipulative, wickedly selfish villain of the stage version. Even in the closing sequence, our allegiance rests with Mrs. Lovett—rendering her final scene particularly heartbreaking (and deeply disturbing). Bonham-Carter deftly balances comedy with pathos and delivers the most nuanced, complete performance in the film. Additionally, Burton's inspired casting of Sacha Baron Cohen (of “Borat” fame) plays into our expectations of the Pirelli character, and the decision to portray Toby as a child adds an unexpected emotional dimension to Bonham-Carter's Mrs. Lovett. And it was nice to see Hilary Swank back in top-form as Anthony.

Though Burton significantly curtailed the stage version (further marginalizing the characters of Anthony and Johanna, and turning Judge Turpin into a one-dimensional villain), his cuts are consistent with his vision of “Sweeney Todd” as a musical horror film. In fact, it's remarkable how much of the source material he managed to leave intact without sacrificing the film's cohesiveness while also imposing his distinct style on the film—we've still got Burton's imaginative sets, the stylized fantasy/flashback sequences, and a superb opening CGI sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Though Burton's “Sweeney Todd” may lack the depth of the stage version, the material soars to new heights as a film. Burton's visionary rendition of Mrs. Lovett's fantasy life with Sweeney in “By the Sea” is sublime—perfectly fusing comedy and whimsy with the poignant reality that Mrs. Lovett loves a man who can never love her back. The claustrophobic composition of the film's closing shot (metaphor aplenty) is achingly haunting—thoroughly compensating for the film’s lack of the closing “Ballad.” “Sweeney Todd” is the strongest film of Burton's career, and it is one of the best movies of 2007.


Blogger Michael said...

"Barker returns to his old shaving/barbering nook, where fellow business owner, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) informs him that his beloved Lucy killed herself after her rape by Turpin and Bamford."

Careful: Mrs. Lovett tells Sweeney that Lucy poisoned herself with arsenic from the apothecary.


6:43 PM  

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