'Sweeney Todd' a savory pie any way you slice it
Admirers of Stephen Sondheim who have long wondered whether a film of distinction would ever be made from one of his stage musicals can put aside their skepticism: Tim Burton has accomplished it in his ravishing "Sweeney Todd."
With oceans of gore, streams of luscious musicality and a performance by Johnny Depp redolent of malevolence and magnetism, Burton brings Sondheim's 1979 musical to the screen with a bravura visual style thrillingly in touch with the timelessly depraved delights of Grand Guignol.
The added marvel is that the director has crafted a version of a stage musical that honors the source without being slavishly devoted to it. excising choral numbers and highlighting the sorrow inside the sordidness of Sondheim's wit-infused score, Burton invites us into a more intimate communion with horrible yet hummable aspects of human nature.
And although most of the voices that Burton employs to interpret the opera-influenced songs belong to tune carriers rather than real singers, Sondheim's music &
some of the most exquisite he's ever composed &
is not made to suffer significantly.
The lush orchestrations and highly unsettling orchestral sound refined by music producer Michael Higham and conductor Paul Gemignani certainly help. Onstage, the coldness and cruelty of "Sweeney's" London need to be balanced by the warmth of melodies powerfully delivered. The narrative demands of moviemaking, however, require the music ideally to become more seamlessly a partner of the dialogue &
to feel as though it doesn't artificially assert primacy over the spoken scenes.
That integration has been carried out with remarkable suppleness so that the numbers seem, to a degree rarely experienced, an extension of character and plot. The success of Burton's technique even accrues beneficially to the performance of the extremely reedy-voiced Helena Bonham Carter, who makes of her Mrs. Lovett &
Sweeney's cannibalistic comrade-in-harms &
a woman less comical but virtually as poignant as the character Angela Lansbury created on Broadway 28 years ago.
It should be noted that the squeamish might find Burton's virtuosic treatment of Sweeney's serial murders &
all in the cause of his "work" as the demon barber of Fleet Street &
occasions to turn away from the screen. But others will recognize, in the syrupy consistency and saturated colors of what oozes out of everyone's neck, that we are not in the province of chain-saw massacres, but of art.
"Sweeney" is, after all, a blood bath, though not one without a political dimension: It's a revenge tragedy &
the vengeance of the have-nots on the haves. (In Hal Prince's original Broadway production, 19th-century London was depicted as a dreary, hierarchical hellhole.) "The history of the world, my sweet," Sweeney sings in "A Little Priest," the song in which he and Mrs. Lovett hatch their diabolical kitchen plans, "is who gets eaten and who gets to eat." It's just that the brutal wrong done to Sweeney mutates from justifiable anger at his corrupt tormentors to a hideous determination to annihilate the human race.
Burton's homage to the creators of the stage version is to hew closely to the original design. He has made some wise cuts for brevity's sake &
most apparently, in the dropping of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," the recurring song that provided a running narration &
but retains almost every other number, in the original order.
That is a measure of the craft and economy of the stage work by Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler, who had adapted the musical from a play based on a 19th-century English horror story.
If anything, John Logan's screenplay homes in more deftly on the psyche of Sweeney, who in the handsome Depp's smudgy eye makeup and deathly pallor somehow seems more ronic, less demonic than his Broadway predecessors. (In his uncanny East End accent, you still hear snippets of Jack Sparrow, his movie pirate alter ego.) The story now plays out more completely from his perspective: While Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett was a softening agent and turned the show into a duet, Bonham Carter's is a mirror of Sweeney's own detachment &
she is even made up to look a bit like him &
and as such becomes a vital, if supporting, character.
The story revolves around the heinous injustice from Sweeney's past: In an effort to bed Sweeney's wife (Laura Michelle Kelly), a sexually predatory judge (Alan Rickman, in a delectably despicable turn) threw Sweeney in chains and on trumped-up charges shipped him off to the penal colonies of Australia. Returning from his banishment with the help of a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower), Sweeney reestablishes his barbershop above the failing meat-pie bakery of Mrs. Lovett, who has long fancied her former neighbor. There, Sweeney plots the slicing and dicing of the judge, who is holding Sweeney's daughter (Jayne Wisener) in preparation for additional licentious acts.
The gruesome shift in Sweeney's business comes after his clash with a seedy competitor played by Sacha Baron Cohen, in a hilariously oleaginous turn that reveals another surprising facet of Cohen's talent. Soon enough, the frustrated Sweeney and the pragmatic Mrs. Lovett have sealed a deal in which the barber will slit the throats of his customers, who will then be dismembered and baked into her pies.
Bring on the dancing girls, right? It takes an actor of Depp's suaveness &
and yes, musical grace &
to fully pull this off. In "Epiphany," the song that unleashes Sweeney's homicidal rage, the camera follows Depp through the anonymous streets of the gray city, as he sizes up the unseeing pedestrians: the better to eat you with, my dears. Vocally, he digs into lyrics as if he were pulling words out of a coal bin, waiting to feed them to the fire.
Meantime, in the music-hall pastiche of " the Sea," Mrs. Lovett imagines domestic bliss with her Mr. Todd, and Burton envisions it in magnificent fashion, as her sickeningly sweet delusion, with the actors decked out in garish colors, staring out of frames that could have been styled by Magritte. All the while, Depp wears an expression of utter blankness, a look that tells you everything you need to know about the nature of their fabulously macabre alliance.
The same description applies to the alliance of Burton and Sondheim. Early in Sondheim's career, "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," two shows for which he wrote the lyrics, were made into mainstream motion pictures. Later with lesser degrees of success, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "A Little Night Music" &
for which he wrote both music and lyrics &
became films, too.
None of those approaches the significance for Sondheim of Burton's "Sweeney Todd," the brilliant singing splatterfest that finally gives him a stab at cinematic immortality.