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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Attend The Tale of Sweeney Todd: Comparing One Barber To Another.

*Warning: Contains some very minor spoilers. Not big huge ones like telling you 'Rosebud' is a sled.*

I don’t usually enjoy comparing a movie to its original stage or literary incarnation too deeply because I like to look at each as a separate work of art where one is inspired by the other. I especially don’t like leaping on the “the original was better” wagon, because that’s not always the case... But in the interests of highlighting the strengths of both versions, I took pleasure in comparing the original stage production and big screen versions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In its Broadway manifestation, Sweeney always seemed to be cast in a burly, brutish form with the likes of Len Cariou and George Hearn in contrast to Johnny Depp’s more lean appearance. Either works for me, though it was a little more convincing that a slighter man would use Sweeney’s means of dispatch that required no great amount of force to overcome his victims- just a quick slash and a mechanical chair that removes any physical obligation to lug the corpse to seclusion.

In going back and watching a few scenes from the stage play version starring George Hearn, the first obvious contrast in their characterizations of the Demon Barber is that the stage Sweeney arrives with an obvious note of cynicism but also a remainder of humanity as he smiles and supplies social niceties in his farewell to Anthony. Burton’s Sweeney arrives on the scene an empty shell of a man with one thought in mind: Vengance… And pretty much nothing else. I assume that Tim Burton wanted this to be Sweeney’s sole motivation and so it could be perceived that Depp’s portrayal of Sweeney is pretty limited in range as he emotes the gamut of moods from anger to searing rage, but it certainly got the message across to me that this Sweeney was obsessed to the point that he would conceivably prioritize revenge with the judge over reunion with his daughter, which is what he did.

Obvious and stupid jibe: Wonder where the inspiration came from for Sweeney's hair...?

To be honest, as much as I enjoyed the film, I felt that Burton seemed to be holding back. There wasn't as much as I would have liked to remind me I was watching a Tim Burton film in terms of direction, but then there was Mrs. Lovett’s dreams of living by the sea, which had Burton stamped all over it as a mixture of whimsy and the Gothic. I enjoyed the most notably Burton-esque visual treat of having all the color bled (hyuk hyuk) out of the characters as though they were all already dead and the only evidence of their life is in the gushes of outrageously red waterfalls of blood that reminded me of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. I don’t know if it was to emphasize the automaton nature of a broken, heartless, merciless Sweeney but it looked as though each of his bloody murders were filmed in pretty much the same way. I think the point could still have come across but with more visual variety by showing him eliminate each hapless victim using a different angle, creating a fluid montage in a sort of visual waltz.

I know there’s not much you could do to lighten up such a horrific scenario, but some visual humor opportunities were entirely lost in the movie… Especially when he doesn’t kill the one victim who brings along a wife and child. They were so ethereal and poorly represented in the background that they could very well have been “ghosts” of his own past and not the family of his present customer.

One great opportunity to lift the audience from the gloom and doom of the story was also missed… The lyrics for “A Little Priest” are delightfully corny in their puns and gives the audience a moment to laugh at how outrageous the idea of baking people into pies is, and yet so many of the lines were cut from the movie and the remaining ones were sung with barely a hint of a smile on the lips of either protagonist. I was pleased, however, that Depp didn't overdo his disgust with the pies because however much I felt a little humor could have balanced the movie out a little more, I wouldn't want goofy camera-mugging faces.

Two cheery protagonists.

On the topics of cuts (I know, I know), it was a shame the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and its reprises were shorn from the movie (Ugh. Cut. Razed. I was doomed from the start to use a stupid-ass pun like that. Sorry. Really.). The music was still there, which I was greatly glad of, but then Anthony Head’s solo bits and those of others were left for the DVD special features (I hope) which is a shame. The Ballad added to the notion that we were watching a Penny Dreadful story play out on a Gothic Melodramatic Victorian stage where you expect to hear the words “murder most foul” or something of that ilk. But I guess in its transition from stage to screen, the story could be presented in a less theatrical manner.

Also a little subdued once his true identity is revealed, Sacha Baron Cohen was quite good as Pirelli. I had a feeling he would do just fine despite apparently going out of his element to play such a vastly different role from his usual fare.

Poor Timothy Spall rarely gets to play anything other than period piece caricatures, but he does it so well! The sad thing is, while everyone else played their roles in a more muted, intense manner, his role was played more theatrically converse to the stage play which has everyone else as loud, exaggerated and maniacal while the Beadle seemed to be the most grounded in reality. He pulled off "creepy" very well.

In defense of the "muted" acting of the rest of the cast, I was glad they didn't take it way over onto the other side of the tracks by being overly theatrical and pompous. They seemed almost humbled by such enormous roles and that satisfied the part of me that feared they were going to get their Hollywood claws into the characters and turn them into screeching heavy metal modern versions of themselves. They limited the modernity to the denim vest and leather coat Depp wore, but that wasn't offensive to me, as I wasn't looking for by-the-book contemporary accuracy of the 1800s (though I'm glad they removed the House of Parliament's Clock Tower from his window's view, because the setting of Sweeney Todd predates the Clock Tower's completion by about a decade, and anyway, it would have been awfully hard to have such a great view from Fleet Street. Only nerds say stuff like that. It stifles artistic license and should stop immediately. And anyway, who really likes those idiots who point out "He never said 'beam me up, Scotty' or 'play it again, Sam'. No fun at all, I tell you.)

I was quite pleased with everyone's singing effort in the movie despite their not being classically trained for years as are their stage counterparts. True, better ability would have meant more powerful notes and less of what sounded like a timid approach to the songs, but they imbued the character with such real tragedy and they did it in tune, that I was willing to overlook the less than perfect singing. I don't mean that to sound like a pity vote, I really think they did quite well.

I always tease that it certainly pays to be sleeping with Tim Burton because you're always guaranteed a great role in a movie, but Helena Bonham Carter earned this role, and to be honest, any of his previous partners were always right for the job too. Nepotism with good judgment behind it! And it was quite something to see that amazing cleavage the whole time! Makes me wish I could wear my corset-tops in public again... Without looking like a sad pathetic woman yearning for her carefree days when she could wear corsets in public and actually pull it off... Not literally... Oh you know what I mean.

I can't believe I almost neglected to mention Sondheim's fantastic score... Sweeney is one of my favorite shows of his for a number of reasons, and the orchestration of it in the movie was beautiful.

Anyway, despite my apparent heckling of the direction, I really do think Tim Burton was the best man for the job and he did it well enough to make this musicals fan happy. Or at least, morbidly entertained and vicariously gloomy and pensive.

1 comment:

Realm Of Dreams said...

This Review comes closest to nailing my feelings about the movie. While I enjoyed it, I got much more enjoyment from Angela and George.