God, that's good
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.I cannot pretend to naturally have the proper critical distance from Tim Burton's undeniably successful film of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. We are talking about an adaptation of my very favorite work of American theater, after all, one of my favorite pieces of dramatic music composed in the latter half of the 20th century. Thankfully, it's been two weeks since I saw the film, and time has given me the distance that my brain could not, and I think I'm ready to write a review that won't consist solely of nitpicking.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The demon barber of Fleet Street.
The differences between the film and the show (and they are many) are bothersome to those of us who know the score by heart, but on the whole they really aren't damaging. There are three ways in which the two versions of Sweeney Todd diverge: first are the true nitpicks, the changes that have no effect other than tweaking the fanboys (minor line rewrites, notes altered, the removal of such disposable elements as the second act "Parlour Songs" number). Then there are the substantive changes which actually make the movie a fundamentally different thing musically and dramatically, but are invisible to anyone not familiar with the show (the re-ordered chronology, significant line rewrites, the butchery of the Beggar Woman's role, the elimination of the love duet "Kiss Me"). Last and rarest are the changes that do indeed make the movie a noticeably lesser work of art.
Chief among these is the elimination of what might be the show's most recognisable number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." I've poked around a bit, and I find that the emerging consensus is that this song's total removal isn't that big a deal because it's not the sort of thing that could be filmed. I find that amazingly wrongheaded. Granted, there's a lot of "Ballad" in the show to go around, and most of the reprises would come across a bit funky in the film as Burton made it, but the main appearances, bookends at the opening and close of the show, turn out to be completely indispensable. I learned something about Sweeney Todd from this film that I never knew about it before: its narrative neither begins nor ends. The ballads just give it the illusion of doing so.
Thus, instead of being eased into the story, after the very cool animated credits we are tossed right onto a boat coming out of the fog, where the young sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) and the dour Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) are coming back to London after a long sea voyage. Anthony is given the honor of introducing all the Burton fans to the extravagantly dense world of Sondheim music with "No Place Like London," which turns out to be an awful opening number. It's been cut to pieces, taking out most of its musical development, and I confess that as a result, for the first eight minutes I thought all my fears about the film were going to be realised: the opening number falls flat and Depp sings it poorly, a crazy CGI-aided swoop through London's grimy streets calls too much attention to itself, and the first recognisably melodic number in the show, "The Worst Pies in London," introducing us to the widowed baker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) is treated terribly. Bonham Carter's take on Lovett is very much the most subdued take on that character yet attempted, and her opening number is essentially a bit of music hall zaniness tailored to the broadly comic approach favored by the role's creator, Angela Lansbury. The movie Lovett just isn't the kind of woman who would sing "The Worst Pies in London," and that's without mentioning how Burton fumbles it completely in a series of clumsy cuts. Right about now, I would have felt smug if I wasn't so sad.
That's when the miracle happens. Like a light switch flipping, when Mrs. Lovett launches into her second number, "Poor Thing," in which she lays out the back story of the whole show, just about everything fell right into place.
Now that I've caught up to that point in the show, here is the plot: Benjamin Barker was a barber with a beautiful wife, who caught the eye of a pious vulture of the law, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Turpin sent Barker to Australia on a trumped-up charge, sicced his beadle (Timothy Spall) on the lonely woman, raped her, left her to commit suicide, and stole her daughter. 16 years later, Barker has returned as Todd, a gaunt, pale-faced man with a streak of white in his jet-black hair and an urge to revenge himself on humanity. What happened then? Well, that's the play, and he wouldn't want me to give it away. Not Sweeney.
I won't do that anymore.
Tim Burton claims that Sweeney Todd is his favorite musical ever, and I believe him; not only because it should be everyone's favorite musical ever, but also because the story of a homicidal barber that was explicitly conceived by one-third of its creative team as a modern day Grand Guignol piece would have a natural appeal for the notoriously macabre director. And he clearly found the material inspiring: he hasn't made a live-action film so gleefully invested in his typically Gothic visual style and pitch black humor since Sleepy Hollow in 1999, not coincidentally his last live-action film anywhere near this good. Like he did in that film, Burton took his cues from the classic Hammer horror films of the '50s, although Sweeney Todd comes decidedly closer to that model. It's the design that does it, I think: in working for the first time with the genius Dante Ferretti, Burton has toned down the extreme grotesques found in his collaborations with the geniuses Bo Welch and Rick Heinrichs. It's distinctly off-kilter Victorian England that we see in Sweeney Todd, but not a specifically nightmarish one, and it achieves a visual classicism that none of Burton's films have previously aimed for. Whether that's desirable or not is something we must all decide for ourselves. Meanwhile, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, making his first film with Burton is...not so interesting a collaborator as Emmanuel Lubezki was in Sleepy Hollow. The film looks bleak as hell, almost to the point of black-and-white, which is good; but it's not particularly inventive, and tends at times to be too dark just for the sake of being dark.
Classicism seeps out all over the film from the minor details (Depp's hair streak is an obvious reference to Universal's Bride of Frankenstein) to the major strokes (the combination of over-the-top gore and humor so dry it hardly registers is a Hammer trademark). Most of Burton's films have more than a passing familiarity with the long history of horror cinema, but none of them have been such a forthright throwback. It suits him, and it suits the material, which was always pitched a modern-day recreation of the Penny Dreadfuls from the 19th century. Reconceived classicism is at the heart of all things Sweeney, and Burton's references to film history are a clever validation of that tradition.
What's a bit surprising is that the show's noted black humor, which perfectly fits into Burton's skewed worldview, has been largely scaled back. Not that the movie Sweeney isn't funny, but it's much more reserved. I like it - it goes well with the bleak visuals and subdued performances.
Oh, I had to get to the performances eventually, didn't I? I'm going to start out nice: Helena Bonham Carter. Her take on Mrs. Lovett is a vastly different thing than the "standard" performances, Angela Lansbury's cockney vaudevillian and Patti LuPone's sexed-up sociopath. Where both of those actresses were big and imposing, Bonham Carter shrinks into the role. Her Lovett is all whispers and nervous little twitches, seeming much more alarmed than invigorated by the killing that she does so much to encourage. What makes her performance stand out so is the teeny tiny details of physical expression she brings to the role: look for the way she moves her eyes and head when Sweeney storms about. You'll know everything you need to about the character's longing for and fear of the barber in just a few frames of Bonham Carter's gestures.
And now I'm going to be not very nice: Johnny Depp made no sort of impression on me whatsoever. Sweeney, as a character, is largely about the desire for revenge, but there's quite a lot of flexibility within that. Depp's choice is to spent every moment in a bubbling rage, which is, I want to stress, a perfectly valid way to play the role, but it comes across as one-note. Whenever the character can be a little bit playful, Depp goes for glowering instead. It's reasonable, but ultimately it's just not that interesting. The only moment in which I felt really good about his performance was in his first major song, "My Friends," where he sings a love song to his old razors, and makes it feel very much like he's about to start making out with them (it helps that it's the one time in the film that he actually sings well). Otherwise, his performance fails entirely to rise above Lovett's dismissal: "Can't you think of nothing else? Always broodin' away on yer wrongs what happened heaven knows how many years ago." When Depp sings in "Epiphany," the very heart of the show's dramatic arc, "I'm alive at last, and I'm full of joy!" I do not believe him.
I haven't felt particularly inclined to mention the music in the musical, but I guess I should. First, I'll say without reservation that longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick has turned in a new set of orchestrations which approach the divine. If I didn't have enough reason to grouse about all the song cuts, the fact that I don't get to hear "Kiss Me" done up like this would do it.
The singing, though, is...not good. I know intelligent people are trying to convince themselves that it is good that Depp and Bonham Carter bring a thin, pop sensibility to the songs, but I think there's an awfully large burden of proof there. I'm sympathetic to the idea that an operatic voice is too big for the screen, although I don't agree, but what bothers me is that far too often, the actors don't sing the notes that were written in the score. My ass, that's a performance choice: it's just poor singing, and the worst moments - "Epiphany," "Not While I'm Around," "No Place Like London" - are worse than the best moments - "By the Sea," "My Friends," the first recording I've ever liked of "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" - are good.
The good news is that this is a movie, not a concert recording, and the way the songs are staged covers up a lot of sins. Particular since Bonham Carter - the worst singer in the cast - gives the most arresting performance. Burton's respect for the material is evident in the marvelous work he does staging the songs, whether he faithfully recreates what was obvious in the libretto, as with the "Johanna" trio, or if he invents something wholesale to make the material his own, as in the hilarious "By the Sea," the best moment in the film. The missteps are few indeed: "God That's Good," the great second act opening number, has been so mangled that I'd have been happier to see it cut altogether, and the choice to remove all the choruses leaves "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" looking awfully strange with its cluster of dead silent shoppers, but those are outlying moments, and not at all typical of the whole.
And now, I've gotten to the end, and what a doozy it is: perhaps the worst moment in any otherwise good film in all of 2007. In the stage version, the show ends with Toby, the orphan boy that Mrs. Lovett takes in, slashing Todd's throat during after the barber has murdered the baker. Shortly thereafter the living members of the cast all burst in to find Toby furiously working the meat grinder where Mrs. Lovett processed Todd's victims into ingredients for meat pies. Rather suddenly, Toby steps forward and begins to sing the final "Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Like I said aaaallll the way up top, that's not really an "ending" - but it tricks us into thinking it is. By contrast, the film ends with Toby slashing Todd's throat, and a fade to black on Todd's body as Sondheim's music winds down. That's it. It's extremely unfulfilling, after the manner of the many '70s horror films that ended the instant the main conflict ended (ending on the very frame, in some cases). It wasn't very satisfying in the '70s, and it's altogether awful here: there's nothing to "release" the audience from the story, and so we shuffle out of the theater with the last shot just kind of hanging there. The movie stops, it doesn't end.
That said, Sweeney Todd is a hell of a thing, flaws and all. It has vision to spare, which is rare enough in the modern cinema, and it was made by a director clearly in love with his material, which is rarer. It is not the definitive version of the musical, but maybe we don't need a definitive version: the film that Burton made, with its blood and bone-dry humor and dark, slimy, Gothic streets, is a whole package that, I confess, is a very good thing on its own, even if it isn't "my" Sweeney Todd. It's Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, and nobody could do it better.
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.8/10 (Depp, and Depp alone, kept it from a 9)
He served a dark and a hungry god.
To seek revenge may lead to hell,
But everyone does it, though seldom as well
As Sweeney Todd,
The demon barber of Fleet Street.