Wednesday, December 05, 2007


SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (dir. Tim Burton, US, 2007, 115 mins.) This may be the most violent and bloody film I have ever seen. This may be the most gorgeously orchestrated film I have ever heard. Tim Burton has taken a stage opera, with violence, and set it on end: it is a violent story, with some opera within it. It could be the realization of nearly any stage director who has wrestled with it. And I think Johnny Depp's performance IS the realization of any actor who has portrayed 'Sweeney'.

As I was watching, I was making mental notes, nearly measure by measure, about the choices the production was making. By the end, I was so overwhelmed by the bloodlust, that I was lost in Depp's cathartic "Final Sequence". It is a HUGE performance, that would easily play to the back of any theater. His Oscar prospects are looming large, as may Burton's, this time.

Helena Bonham Carter's 'Lovett' is much slower to grow into the monstrous cohort. I'm just not sure what she (and/or Burton's) take on Mrs. Lovett was. Initially, I thought she might have chosen to underplay the role in contrast to Depp's balls-out performance. But I think she was performing around her complete lack of vocal power in the music. Her "Little Priest" actually seems shy, if not tentative. Dramatically, it is THE MOMENT that Lovett finds her path to connect to Todd's obsession. It is a moment of joy for her, yet Carter never seems to make a connection with Depp that would provide the groundwork for the revelation during "Final Sequence". That said, the one moment the two of them actually play off each other is during "By the Sea", which is at its best, an homage to the world Burton created for "Pee Wee Herman".

The cast of Sweeney's antagonists, Alan Rickman as 'Judge Turpin', Timothy Spall as 'Beadle Bamford' and Sascha Baron Cohen as 'Pirelli' are all OUTSTANDING! Rickman is not that far from being 'Professor Snape' in a different wig, but he is still totally creepy. Spall's 'Beadle' is a fabulous mixture of violence and greasiness. But it is Baron Cohen who is able to steal every frame he is in. The character is written with the advantage, since he must make a definitive impression before becoming the earliest victim. However, Baron Cohen applies a surprising depth within the two short scenes he appears in. Vocally, Rickman and Baron Cohen are in fine voice. Spall's 'Beadle' has been whittled down to just a few phrases from "Ladies In Their Sensitivities".

'Anthony' (Jamie Campbell Bower), 'Johanna' (Jayne Wisener) and 'Begger Woman' (Laura Michelle Kelley) are present, but just barely, as their roles are reduced from fleshed out sub-plots to just tools to be used by Sweeney in obtaining his revenge. Then there is 'Tobias', played by Ed Sanders, who is probably the youngest if not the most age appropriate actor to ever perform the role. Regardless of his arguable talent, just his physical presence firmly roots the story into a Dickensian period. He is 13 years old, though he appears to be much younger, he is such an anomaly to the rest of the surrounding cast, that he actually becomes the audience's moral link towards the conclusion. He is also a really good vocal match to Carter's whispy voice in "Nothin's Gonna Harm You", which he delivers with 'Oliver!' like gusto.

The look of the film is fairly monochromatic, with the exception of 'Pirelli' and, of course, the blood. It is a case of the poster art perfectly representing the palette of the piece it is selling. Burton's penchant for extremes in production design (by Dante Ferretti) is in full play here. The present is in grays and blacks. The past is in gold tones and the future ("By The Sea") reaches cartoon-like brightness. Colleen Atwood's costume design is just as extreme.Her dresses for the status climbing Lovett are limited only by the bleak palette. Director of photography, Dariusz Wolski, whose previous work includes "The Crow" and "The Pirates of the Carribean" trilogy, is able to break open even the most theatrical of moments. His shooting of "Epiphany" is particularly spectacular.

Musically, nearly note remains intact, whether it is sung or not. Burton and adapter John Logan have eliminated Stephen Sondheim's choruses. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" proves to be cinematically unessential, though the music itself is the perfect opening credit music. The choruses within "Pirelli's Miracle Elixer" and "God That's Good" have been excised, also, though for reasons of style and perhaps clarity for the principals, than timing, as the music plays wordlessly under the scenes. The "City on Fire" passages in "Final Sequence" are appropriately cut, as they served to provide scene changes on stage, as did the "Ballad...". The trimming of verses here and there are obviously made for the sake of pacing, though one might feel teased, or at worse, watching a Cliff Notes version of the play. However, the inclusion of nearly every note and word of Sweeney's vocals will placate most of the 'Todd-heads' and maintains the integrity of the adaptation.

Now, finally, a few words about the publicized 'hook' regarding the "Graphic Violent Content." If Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" made you squirm, you will not make it to the end of this film. "Johanna - Act 2" (or what was the "Johanna Trio" on stage, now a duet between Todd and Anthony) is one of the most gruesome sequences I've rarely experienced on film. Even the disposal of the bodies is photographed with gruesome realism! By the time that "Final Sequence" begins, I was wondering how, or if, Burton was going to bring the film to climax, considering the amount of violence we are exposed to leading up to it. The final confrontation between Sweeney and Judge Turpin, does indeed upstage all of the violence that preceded it. By the time the camera pulls back from the final tableau, the audience was audibly stunned into a silence. There was a smattering of applause, but for the most part, I could have sworn that the theater took a collective sigh of relief that the violence had come to an end. In fact, after seeing "Final Sequence" played out on screen in such realistic detail, it is hard to imagine it having been performed on stage, eight times a week for years.

Perhaps that is the film's surest sign of artistic success. By the end of the film, so comprehensive is Burton's cinematic vision of the play, that it is hard to imagine seeing it performed with such depth, style and, yes, that word again, catharsis, as what he and his cast have created here.

1 comment:

KC said...

Thanks for the wonderful review. I'm glad Johnny did the part justice. I cannot wait until I'm finally able to see the movie myself.