Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Let me get this out of the way first. People who are talking about this film's Oscar chances are probably wasting their breath. I see Depp possibly getting a Best Actor nod, but Sweeney Todd is not a "Best Picture" kind of movie - maybe at the Golden Globes, where it has already had a respectable showing among the list of the HFPA's darlings, but not the Oscars. That is not to say - AT ALL - that this is not a good movie. It's a wonderful movie, a great piece of film, and what I think is the perfect film that could possibly have been made from the stage musical. It's just not the kind of movie that Oscar voters tend to recognize. This isn't just because of the stylized violence and blood - though that's probably part of it - but it's a very particular kind of movie, and (much to its credit) it doesn't try to be anything else.

I'm sure most of you are familiar with the basics of the story, but here's a recap. Sweeney Todd was once known as Benjamin Barker, a barber who had a good life, a beautiful wife, and a baby daughter. Judge Turpin lusts after Mrs. Barker, and uses his power to have Barker sent to prison for life on a false charge. Barker breaks out of prison and returns to London fifteen years later, only to find his wife and child gone. He swears revenge on the Judge his stooge, Beadle Bamford, and after missing what might be his only chance to kill the judge, he decides to practice and sharpen his razors on the throats of his customers. His neighbor, Mrs. Lovett - baker of meat pies with no meat - is besotted with him and helps him, eventually cooking up (*cringe* so sorry for that awful pun) a scheme in which they'll dispose of the bodies by using them as meat for her pies, which become the culinary hit of London. And of course, as in all great stories, complications arise, secrets are revealed, and almost everyone dies. Great holiday entertainment for the whole family!

It starts with a lovely animated credits sequence, highlighted by the underscore to the omitted "Ballad of Sweeney Todd." There have been complaints about leaving this song out, but I didn't really miss it. The orchestration of it permeates the film, and "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd ... his skin was pale and his eye was odd" is just not the way to start a film. A play, yes - a film, no. In addition to the Ballad, two other whole numbers were cut - the Judge's song "Johanna" and "Kiss Me." "Johanna" is a wonderful characterization piece that has what I call a sort of masturbatory melody - very fitting for what we are learning about the character. But on film, we learn all that we really need to know on that score when we see the Judge look through a peephole at his 16-year-old ward, Johanna (who also happens to be Todd's estranged daughter). I have never been a great fan of "Kiss Me," and felt it was stretching the bounds of acceptable levels of over-the-top-ness, even on the stage, and would have killed the film. So I didn't personally miss it.

As far as other songs go, they're all there, though not necessarily in their entirety. Sondheim explained this really well in the press junket, saying that part of the implied contract in a stage show is that the audience will sit through songs. But in a movie, that's just not how it works, and if it doesn't advance the story, it doesn't need to be there. And he's absolutely right.

That being said, there are quite a few bits of extended singing (I'd say about 75-80% percent of what is communicated in the film is sung, not spoken), and Sondheim's songs are very dense in lyrics, so if you're not familiar with the show and the songs, I recommend being a very careful listener. One of my handful of concerns with this film is that people might miss important things that are being said because they're part of a song. Because we're not really used, as audience members, to actually listening to what people are singing on screen.

The performances are all superb. Depp, as usual, is stunning. He's only the slightest bit overdone, but that is essential to the character and the style of the film itself. And his singing voice, while not the roaring monsters of Len Cariou and George Hearn, is instead subdued, which is perfect for the medium of film (but he does know when it's time to roar, and does it admirably). I was surprised how much I liked Helena Bonham-Carter. I was not wild about what I'd seen in the previews, and as much as I adore Mrs. Lovett as a character, I can't stand most of the portrayals I've seen of her. Sacha Baron Cohen is only in a couple of scenes, but his Pirelli owns them both, as well he should. Alan Rickman seems to be treading familiar ground here, but he's so good at being diabolical (and now musically diabolical!), it's folly to criticize. His duet with Johnny, "Pretty Women," is quite impressive. Jayne Wiseman and Jamie Campbell Bower are lovely, with even lovelier voices, and I enjoy their part in the story, kind of like a Disney couple who took a wrong turn and ended up in a horror movie. I've always thought that you could play the story in a loop, because Anthony and Johanna are setting themselves up for the same kind of fate that befell Sweeney and his wife.

The real find in the cast, though, is Ed Sanders, who plays Toby. On the stage, Toby is traditionally played by a man in his late twenties or early thirties. This gives the impression of Toby as a sort of man-child - a boy in his late teens at the youngest, who never quite developed into an adult. But Sanders is an actual child, probably about 12 years old, which creates a very different dynamic. There's a difference between Pirelli smacking a man around and smacking a child around. There's a difference between a grown man singing to Mrs. Lovett "Nothing's gonna harm you, not while I'm around" and a child singing that. Sanders plays Toby as a Dickensian child, abused by 19th Century London and the people who inhabit it. A disturbingly chronic (especially for a child) imbiber of gin, but literally the only character in the story who cares about someone else more than he cares about himself.

The biggest in my handful of concerns - and even this is rather small - has to do with probably the biggest spoiler of the story, so I'm going to inviso-text here (click to read) --> I think the Beggar Woman was both underused and overexposed, if that makes sense. She's introduced a bit too late, in my opinion. No reason, of course, that she should have been introduced in the very first scene, but it may have been a mistake not to introduce her before we hear about Lucy. Obviously, it's a very (VERY) fine line the filmmakers had to walk, to simultaneously keep the Beggar Woman in our minds and yet conceal who she really is, but I think there were a couple of missteps. They could have done more to disguise her, for one thing. It may not be as obvious to people who don't know the story, but it was quite obvious to me that the Beggar Woman is Lucy with dirty hair, face, and dress. She's even wearing the bonnet - albeit covered with soot and grime - that she wears in the flashback. This covers her face the first time we see her, but at none of the other times. The upside of this is that if you know who she is (and realize that it's completely understandable why Sweeney wouldn't recognize her), it makes the climax even more poignant. The downside, though, is that you're not as gutted as Sweeney is when we find out who she is, which is something that the stage version was able to do so successfully (because obviously it's easier to pull the wool over our eyes when the actors are so far away from us).

As a total package, this is a FANTASTIC movie - a home run for Burton and everyone involved, as far as I'm concerned - and I can't WAIT to see it again. It's not designed as an "award-bait" kind of movie, and the stage show wasn't an "award-bait" kind of show. But it's a success in every way that I think matters, and it's an armful of absolute joy, coming out just in time for Christmas. I hope everyone loves it as much as I do.

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