01 March 2008

Film review: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street will continue to upset some musical theatre purists, but they can wait for live productions. This Sweeney maintains the integrity of the stage version while telling the story with a tension and darkness rarely captured live.

Adaptation from stage to screen is a dangerous art, as it simply may not be possible to recreate the complexity and impact of a live production on film. Many incredible examples of musical theatre have made dull films (A Chorus Line and Rent come immediately to mind), but others have been translated to the screen in ways that almost re-created the genre. Fosse did it in Cabaret and Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

When future theatrical historians dissect 20th Century American Musical Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd will rarely be ignored. Premiering on Broadway in 1979, it tells the story a barber who kills his customers and his landlady who uses the bodies to make meat pies. The show fuses comedy with a classical tragic structure and tells the story through the eyes of a modern chorus.

So how does Burton tell this tale? Firstly, he removes the chorus. This instantly means the loss of some of the most memorable music. Sadly, filmgoers may never hum the “The Ballad of Sweeny Todd”, but there is no place for a chorus in this film.  It’s no longer a story about many; it’s the story of Benjamin Barker (aka Sweeney Todd).

We see London from Todd’s perspective. The CGI city is magnificently grey and miserable. Action and characters are viewed through distorted windows or reflected in broken mirrors and shining blades. Todd is unable to see his world (or himself) clearly, until the inevitable moment when it’s too late.

Burton supports this with a stunning use of colour and light. The symbolism is obvious, but the greys and sepias of Sweeney’s world compared to the bright floral of Benjamin’s past show more than any dialogue could manage. Then there’s red – lots of red. (It may be the best use of red on a screen since Spielberg used a little red coat in Shindler’s List.) The squeamish be warned – there’s blood in this film. Blood that oozes, drips, spurts and gushes life, death, love and hope.

Burton favourites Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter head the cast. Depp’s Todd is enticing and I cannot imagine a better choice. He creates a sympathy, and even empathy, for a character who we still clearly see as a monster, but feel every moment of his pain.

The casting of Bonham Carter as pie maker Mrs Lovett has split opinions. In musicals people sing. Burton’s principal cast are not singers, but the roughness in some of the voices adds an unexpected authenticity to their characters. Bonham Carter is clearly not a singer. Hearing “Worst Pies in London” sung by one of the worst singing voices around is deliciously ironic, but somewhat distracting. Marni Nixon made us believe that Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn could sing, so I have to wonder why there wasn’t some dubbing to support Bonham Carter’s voice. Even on the stage, it’s common for a homely chorus member to stand in the wings ensuring that the ingénue’s high C is perfect.

Vocal ability aside, Mrs Lovett is traditionally played by a more mature singer, who is embracing comic roles. (Angela Lansbury was the first Mrs Lovett.) Bonham Carter’s younger Lovett was surprising. However, her performance has brought such a unique depth and poignancy to the character, that Mrs Lovett may never be cast in the same way again.  She is no longer the comic sidekick. Her obsession with Todd is as distorted as his need for vengeance but she make’s their love seem feasible. There are moments when we hope that their murderous rampage can lead to them living happily by the sea.

It’s an odd thing to believe a world where people regularly burst into song, yet musicals can tell the most epic and tragic stories so effectively. Perhaps it is because music can reach ours souls instantly. Words have to go though our brain first. Images are similar – they show us the emotion and feeling, without the need for words. Buton’s film combines the visual and aural with some fine structuring to create an emotionally rewarding film that I’ve already gone back to see again.

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