Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

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I am pleased to say that after much hope and longing, I have FINALLY seen the new version of Sweeney Todd! <APPLAUSE>

Since I posted several stories in advance of the release of this film, it is only fair that I post a sort of review now, for those of you who may not have seen it (beware, possible slight spoilers ahead)…or for those who did and are curious as to my appraisal.

First of all, I must explain that I have seen many different productions of Sweeney on stage (ten I believe), as well as working on the technical side of three of them. This is a show I know like the back of my hand and LOVE. Therefore I approached this film eagerly yet cautiously. Someone with no history regarding the show will likely have a different view then I do.

Overall I certainly enjoyed the Tim Burton production, but for me it was a somewhat mixed bag, therefore I will list the things I felt were pros and cons of this film rather then try and expound too extensively on the entire film.

PROS:

Johnny Depp: Enough praise has been heaped on Mr. Depp of late that I won’t belabor the point. All in all, he carried the role. First of all can actually sing well enough to get through the role. He is no Len Cariou, but he certainly held his own against the score with some nice nuances of emotions. I have seen much better singers succumb to the bombast and just try to belt their way through. His dramatic intensity through out was wonderful as was his sense of pathos. Most actors play Sweeney as a sort of demon or hulking monster, but Depp played him as a manic wolf, alternately brooding and careening around. Very very interesting.

Helena Bonham Carter: I found her weary, woman-on-the-edge-of-a-gin-induced-tantrum to be a good character choice, and she certainly held her own with Depp pathos wise. She was able to portray the mix of fear, desperation, love and depravity that makes Mrs. Lovett tick quite successfully. The weakest key performance (see below) but with some very good moments and all in all not the disaster some feared.

The Villains: Simply put, they stole the film. Alan Rickman is who I hope to grow up to be should I ever grow up. No one does decadent, lascivious evil like he does and he brings a further dimension of cold, twisted calculation to Turpin, who is often played as a typical old lecher. Think Snape, but if he had folios of pictures of a nude, drugged Hermoine, dated by year at Horworts. Yep…that kind of horrifying but nauseatingly tempting evil. Rickman is all about intelligent and worldly menace in this role which is absolutely perfect. Timothy Spall also excels in the usually thankless role as Beadle Bamford. He brings a real psychotic menace to the role, rather then just playing it as Judge Turpin’s Igor. The sound of that walking stick extending and the gesture he used gave me chills by the end.

Sacha Baron Cohen: From his oiled black wig to his salami shaped codpiece, he was the perfect “street mountebank”. Of especial note was his comic opera accent, it’s sudden turn to something more menacing (Call me Davey…), and the banal evil of his sordid little mind. Signore Pirelli is a character played for cheap laughs on stage that was made far more by the performance, and some deft rewriting. Bravo!

Tim Burton: Tim Burton’s exceptionally twisted and complex sense of scenic design and imagery were on perfect display in this film. Possibly my favorite shot of the film was his 10 second sweep through the streets of London into Fleet Street, perfectly setting the tone and establishing the city as a character in it’s own right. His subdued palate of colors reminded me of the blue/gray world he animated in The Corpse Bride, but in Sweeney fervent splashes of colors (especially nearly day glow crimson) appear to perfectly focus attention and shake up the audience’s sensibilities. He also created exceptional stage pictures, using windows and shattered mirrors as frames as well as creating new and fascinating conceits to move songs. For example, on stage in “A Little Priest”, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are usually sampling real or pantomimed pies during the song, coming up with each profession off the cuff. Burton directed them to go from window to window, picking out people on the street to inspire their macabre recipes. Brilliant.

Sondheim: He took a massive sweeping operatic score and made it into a tight, almost personal film soundtrack without losing a nuance or missing a beat. I do miss certain numbers, such as the glorious “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, but beyond that, he added through subtraction.

Cons:

Johnny Depp: He never quite found the blackest of humor that dwells in Sweeney, especially in songs like “A Little Priest”. This limited our ability to relate to Sweeney, since in many ways as murderous and mad as he is, like Iago in Othello or Richard III, HE is the character the audience connects to. Without that ability to laugh with humor, even manically, Depp lost something and an excellent performance was marred. Plus he felt a little too young for the role, and he fell too often into using Captain Jack’s accent. Sweeney was a middle class professional, and would have sounded a bit posher.

Helena Bonham Carter: She can’t sing. At all. She just can’t.

I’m sorry, but she can’t.

Maybe in the pseudopop ballads she was ok, like “Not While I’m Around”, but she was tha suck in “The Worse Pies in London”. She couldn’t handle the more theatrical songs.

And she also seemed a bit too young.

The Makeup Artists: Whoever decided to make Sweeney and Lovett both sunken eyed cadavers in an otherwise normal population needs to be choked on their sallow eyeshadow. It made some sense for Sweeney due to the trauma (as the white streak in his hair did) but Lovett was poor, not 6 months dead. To see them in street scenes was like watching The Cure open for Avril Lavinge. Also, both leads should have been aged about 10 years, and why did Mrs Lovett, for all her deathly pallor and decrepit lifestyle, have smooth perfect skin and high, perky breasts? Shame on the designers for putting star appeal before character accuracy?

Tim Burton: Any man who lovingly lingers on his wife being roasted alive in a furnace for 20 seconds needs serious help, mate. I don’t blinkin CARE that it’s art, Tim. For that shot alone he takes the “Honey, wouldn’t counseling be cheaper?” award from long time title holder John Boorman, who cast his wife as Ygraine in Excaliber, then stripped her nude and showed her bring brutally dry humped by a knight in full armor for nearly 5 minutes of screen time. That has GOT to have chaffed.

The Young Romantic Leads: They looked very pretty, and could sing a bit. Did I care? No. On stage both are usually played with a massive dose of tongue in cheek humor…after all, they are basically parodies of typical comic operetta lovers. The two actors in the film played them in deadly earnest and deadly dull. However, not much harm done as the roles of Anthony and Johanna really don’t matter, they are cyphers there to create a maguffin. Sadly, they looked as if they KNEW they were cyphers in this production.

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2 Comments

  1. Two main comments, otherwise: I agree with your assessent.

    Any man who lovingly lingers on his wife being roasted alive in a furnace for 20 seconds needs serious help, mate.

    *giggles helplessly* You’re right here. I definitely expected to see such a scene, and–being an American film, even one set in London, where we seem to be rather obsessed with folks on fire–expected to see some of the burn.

    What I did not expect? To keep watching, to the point where it became almost too visceral to watch.

    It felt longer than 20 seconds, to me, as well.

    My only disagreement: the young romantic leads. And truly, only the one–Jamie Campbell Bower, who played Anthony. Even *knowing* what I know about Sweeney Todd, and how the call-and-refrain of “Johanna” is usually played out with a lighter hand, he turned a darker turn for me than anticipated.

    For me…before singing of Johanna, seeing her in the window, and being seen by Judge Turpin, he is a child. One that plays at being a man, but still, essentially, a bright-eyed boy.

    Something in him breaks when he is accosted by Turpin and tossed back into the street. For when he resumes the song, he seems–obsessed, driven, in that moment nearly mad with grasping acquisition. The simple heartfelt “I’ll save you from this” lyrics turn, in his high, hurt voice, into a dangerous knowing–he will have the fair-haired maid, and he no longer cares how it happens, or if Turpin dies in his path to claim her.

    His eyes nearly exactly match Todd’s in that fervid, blood-daubed walk away from the townhouse.

    *That* moment, impressed me.

  2. no, Helena cannot sing… but in this case, I didn’t mind it; that flaw made her character even more repulsive, which worked just fine for me.

    … and now I want to go watch Excaliber again…


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