Saturday, December 22, 2007

It's man devouring man my dear/and who are we to deny it in here

Oh man was I ready to hate this movie. Just tear it to shreds for it's head-scratching choices (paramount among them being the casting of non-singers in a musical) but Sweeney Todd works. It works SPECTACULARLY. Burton's film is a high-wire act, daring and threatening at any given moment to fall precariously to its doom. But Burton never wavers, not for one moment, he charges boldly ahead aided by the top-shelf material on hand by Stephen Sondheim and book by Harold Wheeler.
The story of Sweeney Todd has stuck in the popular consciousness in some form or another since the late nineteenth century, but it was popularized by the 1973 musical by Sodheim starring Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou as Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney. The recent revival by director John Doyle gave an effecting spin on the piece by having its performer play their own instruments. The conceit was used to great effect and added some intriguing layers and subtext. It was also probably one of the best productions I've ever seen on Broadway and set the bar very high for the film version of Sweeney. But despite all odds Burton nails his adaptation. In casting actors over singers he succeeds where The Producers failed. Burton takes advantage of the fact that he can tells his story on film, showing the actors in close, swinging his camera around and cutting from location to location. He's also able to show-off an amount of gore unprecedented and incapable of being produced in stage versions of the show. Shooting so often in close-up allows for an intimacy that doesn't require superior vocal work. These are pained, angry, vicious people whose passion bubbles over into song. This also explains why Burton has omitted the ensemble based numbers. The songs are refelctions of pained individuals working with a group wouldn't quite work.

The story follows barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) who upon returning to London after years in prison for a crime he didn't commit returns to find his wife dead and child under the care of the man who sent him away, Judge Turpin (a spot-on Alan Rickman). Barker takes up residence with "worst-pie maker in London" Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and he becomes Sweeney Todd, a man obsessed with revenge. The two hatch a plan that will serve both their purposes, Todd will enact his revenge on the over-privileged class that has done him wrong and Mrs. Lovett will use their bodies as meat for her pies. John Logan's script cuts down the story to its bear essentials (greatly parring down Sweeney's daughter Johanna and helpful sailor Anthony romance-much to my relief). Depp's voice has a pop-rock-ish sensibility echoing the likes of Iggy Pop and David Bowie. He gives great brooding, as is appropriate for the character, but when he finally gets what he thinks he wants the facade crumbles and Depp shows off the central turmoil at the heart of Todd. Depp is at his best when the character is at the height of his passion which is why he's so thrilling in numbers like "The Epiphany" and "No Place Like London." The bigger names in the supporting cast are lots of fun. Alan Rickman is perefctly suited to the wicked and perverse Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall basically plays the R-rated version of his lackey from Enchanted. Sascha Baron Cohen makes a big splash as the supremely entertaining Singnor Pirelli, a rival barber for Todd as he shows off impressive vocal range as well as his junk. Of course, Cohen being entertaining was never in question.

The real surprise here though is Helena Bonham Carter. I was ready to cry nepotism as her thin, reedy voice hardly makes her a contender for playing Nellie Lovett. However, Bonham Carter intrinsically gets the character. She's a classic co-dependent and enabler for Sweeney. All she wants is his happiness and wants desperately for him to notice her romantically. She has intense home-making instincts but she's really the mother from hell. This never comes off better than in "By the Sea" where she envisions a domestic life for herself and Sweeney and Burton gets to show-off a particularly playful side. Of the unknowns in the cast Ed Sanders does a first-rate job as what has to be the youngest Toby in the history of the show. He does a fine job with "God that's good" and "Not while I'm around" and helps complete the twisted family unit that Mrs. Lovett is trying to put together.
The real star of the movie though at the end of the day is Burton's direction. The film breezes by and is entertaining from the first frame to the last. While Burton is occassionally hitting the same goth notes that made him famous it never feels as though his sensibility is over-taking the story. He provides exciting visual flourishes to each number so that while they may not have the most dynamic singing ability they're incredibly fun to watch, assuming you're the type that takes glee from gallons of Hammer horror-style blood.

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