Thursday, January 3, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

For a proper cinematic staging of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Sweeney Todd, throats must be sliced and buckets of blood must gush and spray. And in Tim Burton’s adaptation it does, it pours in thick red paint splendor, an orgy of blood, sliced from the throats of unknowing victims of a doomed demon barber. Sweeney Todd is an old story and in its nearly 150 year origin has been told numerously but none is more famous and prominent than Sondheim’s groundbreaking horror musical. With its music inspired by the great Bernard Herrmann, this masterpiece of American theater invites us to attend the tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a man falsely imprisoned back at his old stomping grounds vowing his revenge on the corrupt ones who wronged him:

“Barker, his name was…Benjamin Barker.”
“Not Barker…Sweeney Todd now…and he will have his revenge.”

What makes this piece of work so thrilling is not just that it’s frightening, but also incredibly funny and witty in that intellectual Sondheim way. It’s not very conventional, but satisfying. Sondheim’s music is grand and baroque, while his lyrics are hilarious in there sense of doom. I got to see a concretized version of the stage show nearly ten years ago, and it was thrilling. I’m sure I didn’t understand a lot of it, and missed quite a bit of the quick Sondheim lyrics, but in the years of being enamored by the original soundtrack, I’ve fallen for it, completely succumbed to it’s power and depth and hilarity. When I heard of the movie version finally coming about, directed by Tim Burton, I was scared and excited. Al I kept thinking was…please don’t screw it up…please…pretty please.
Happy to report-- Burton has concocted his richest film since Ed Wood, and that the marriage with Sondheim seems to be perfectly justified. This isn’t quite all Sondheim, Burton, with the capable screenplay by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator) has removed a few characters, cut and spliced some of the songs, but it’s enough Sondheim to appease the die-hards, and enough Burton to possibly convert a few neophytes into exploring the original. The story itself really hasn’t been tampered with, and that proves the malleability and total strength of the material itself, I believe. Johnny Depp stars as Sweeney, and is completely captivating-- he uses his grand movie star charisma and starts to wilt away at it, and this crafty thespian willingly goes the dark demented places needed. He sings too, and it’s not half bad, but he’s really selling the character from his look, not his vocal cords. And Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, one the wittiest and most complex roles in modern theater history and while her singing voice is a bit off now and then, her porcelain corpse bride look and knotted hair naturally suite the striking pale actress.
The movie opens as Sweeney returns to London and takes up at the residence of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a widower pie shop owner, and the proprietor of “The Worst Pies in London.” The barber begins anew, vowing revenge on the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who falsely imprisoned him years ago, stealing his beautiful wife and holding his daughter captive in that time. After first showing up a flashy tonsorial fraud, named Pirelli (Sasha Baron Cohen), he is blackmailed and thusly killed by the hands of Sweeney. At which Sweeney proclaims with great glee, “they all deserve to die,“ in the first act climatic song, entitled, “Epiphany.” Upon this Mrs. Lovett comes up with a solution for both their problems (her fledgling business, his killing problem) and resolves to use his clients meat in her piece, in what she calls, “enterprise,” in the stage play\movie’s most thrilling moment, “A Little Priest.”
There’s more, plenty more-- it’s rich and complex material, all the more impressive the way Burton keeps it flowing while still remaining true to its source. One thing that was drastically altered but turned out be a great idea was making the role of Toby, the boy eternally devoted by Mrs. Lovett and skeptical of Sweeney and his evil deeds, into a kid. He’s played by Edward Sanders and does a brilliant job. Not only does his have the best singing voice in the company of non-singer actors, but gives a natural performance, embodying the only innocence of the story. The only real misstep is the subplot of Sweeney’s sailor friend Antony (Jamie Campbell Bower) trying to wow the lovely Johanna (Jayne Wisener), who happens to be Sweeney (or Benjamin’s daughter)-- it stilts rather than shines, partially due to the lack of screen time of the two, but mostly to their inept glances passing as screen chemistry. However Bower’s ballad, “Johanna” is still quite lovely.
Sweeney Todd is a visual feat-- no surprise there with Burton at the helm. Dante Ferretti’s gothic and gray production design is lovely in it’s dirty claustrophobia, and nearly as impressive as his recreation of old New York in Gangs of New York. Colleen Atwood’s costumes remind of her work on Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, but since that was so inspired in itself, it’s still beautifully disheveled. And Dariusz Wolski’s (Pirates of the Caribbean) cinematography is perfectly dark-- with the thick red blood overflowing the screen in otherwise unsaturated muted hues of gray and black.
My personal favorite moment in the film is while Sweeney is singing his version of the ballad, “Johanna,” and it’s inter-cut with his slashing of arbitrary personage’s throats, and that mixture of poignant sad music laced with ultra-violent killing is the great thing about the story, how it deepens and surprises and somehow makes us laugh and cry all the midst of a hideous tale of revenge and malice. There’s no redeeming these tortured people, and they all know it, and get their just desserts in the end, but it’s thrilling to watch. It was thrilling to watch it on stage, and to my utter delight, it’s thrilling to watch in Burton’s hands, as the blood pours out, an American classic is reborn. B+

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