Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2007

Bloody delicious

Burton passes the musical test and crafts his best film in years

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Paramount Pictures
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: John Logan, based on the play by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Jamie Campbell Bower, Timothy Spall, Ed Sanders, Laura Michelle Kelly and Sacha Baron Cohen
Rated R / 1 hour, 57 minutes
Opens December 21, 2007
(out of four)

It seems like a perfect match - the macabre Broadway show about bloody revenge and cannibalism, and the cinematic sensibilities of director Tim Burton.

But there's one caveat: You don't just snap your fingers and know how to direct a musical. It's an entirely unique form in and of itself, and as we've seen in recent years (when musicals have just started to become viable again), not just anybody can do it, no matter how good the stage play was, no matter how good the voices are, no matter how much experience you have in other forms of cinema or theatre.

Often when people try to direct musicals, the musical sequences themselves play like music videos. Chris Columbus' disastrous effort on Rent comes to mind. Another example is the recent re-adaptation of The Producers, which was directed by the director of the play and which subsequently ended up coming across as an intrusive, loud, up-close version of it that completely negated its own existence. (In other words, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to see the film rather than the play.)

But Tim Burton has avoided all of those pitfalls of his predecessors and, in adapting Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the big screen, has found the perfect, delicate balance between the comic and the grotesque, the mournful and the savage, the murky and the bright. Navigating effortlessly between music and dialogue (another common hiccup for many modern musicals), Sweeney Todd sets us in a dank, expressionistic London blackened by corruption and envy and reeking with the stench of death.

It still seems new and glamorous to the naive, young romantic Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who has just arrived in town and befriended the charming, but sinister Mr. Todd (Johnny Depp), the dark and tortured anti-hero who aims to make this seedy underground the canvas for a masterpiece of revenge.

Unbeknownst to Anthony, Todd's real name is Benjamin Barker, who was once a strapping and kindly family man before the cunning and covetous Judge Turpin (who but Alan Rickman?) threw him in prison and took in Benjamin's wife and child. Barker has returned to his old stomping grounds virtually unrecognizable - rage and hatred have aged him - to all but Mrs. Lovett (the great Helena Bonham Carter), who bakes inedible meat pies below Barker's former barber shop on Fleet Street.

Sweeney's daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), locked up like Rapunzel in the Judge's home, becomes the object of Anthony's affection. As for Sweeney, he wants his daughter back, but his first priority, of course, is revenge - aimed directly at Judge Turpin and his doting, pathetic, weasel-like servant, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).

Naturally, he can't just walk up to them and slit their throats - no, he's more poetic than that. He's going to enjoy himself. He'll set up the barber shop, defeating a rival barber, the flamboyant showman Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen, one of many inspired performances) and get in the good graces of Bamford and Turpin leading up to their inevitable demise. But first he and Mrs. Lovett will have to make a living - and she does bake meat pies as a vocation. Times are tough - she sure could use some fresh meat at a good price . . .

The performances transcend mere musical or visual stylishness. There is both unrelenting irony and a heavy dose of pathos in the character of Sweeney Todd, whom Depp plays as a man full of hate but in conflict with a certain idealism that has been mostly killed. Violence has been done to him by the world. And, as they say, do unto others . . .

In fact, with the notable exception of Anthony (the one newcomer to this dark vision of London), all the characters in the film seem weathered and browbeaten by either their own actions or the things done unto them. It's even in the way they sing. They aren't belting out show tunes and sustaining 30-second crescendos - nor should they be. Their voices are tortured and subdued, expressing anguish and anger . . . with just the slightest pinch of hope, love, happiness. The singing and the dialogue seem like natural continuations of one another, blending seamlessly rather than drawing attention to the fact that they're singing. The songs and the violence are the characters' emotional expression, and together they play like a symphony of madness.

No doubt taking plenty of cues from Stephen Sondheim's original work, Burton and screenwriter John Logan approach the material with dark, absurd humor - which goes a long way once Sweeney puts his plan into action. In a hilarious montage of his first several victims, Sweeney isn't just slicing throats - he's sawing at them with vengeful glee, and the results spray across the floor of his shop in the deepest, boldest crimson you're likely to see.

Burton himself - in his bloodiest effort since Sleepy Hollow - takes joyous fun in all the bloody goodness. He hasn't been at his best lately. His Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an aimless and uninspired throwaway, The Corpse Bride didn't nearly live up to expectations and his Planet of the Apes remake was quite simply awful. This decade, only Big Fish has shown the creative juice that made much of his early work so inspired.

Sweeney Todd is a triumphant return to form. It's not only his best film since Ed Wood, it's one of the best of his career and one of the best films of 2007. Chicago, eat your heart out.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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