Monday, December 17, 2007

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd

Sometimes blood everywhere is the only way a situation is going to go. From Titus Andronicus to Travis Bickle, there's a rich dramatic history of individuals alienated to the point of insanity who, to paraphrase Patrick Bateman, "just have to kill a lot of people."

The story of Sweeney Todd comes from Victorian England, which as all young Americans learn, was not the place to be unless you were an actual queen of England named Victoria. Composer Stephen Sondhiem has Sweeney sum up his opinion of 19th century London with these lyrics: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/and it's filled with people who are filled with shit." Tim Burton sets his adaptation of this nearly flawless Sondheim musical in a a gray, vile world to match this sentiment. The only thing that gives color to the world, and relief to the protagonist, is blood. Lots and lots of blood.

Todd's antagonist is the snakely Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who had him carted off to a penal colony in Australia, then stole away his wife and infant child. Fifteen years later, Todd returns. He is put up by the pie-shop proprietress Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), and one complete mental breakdown later, the two hatch a scheme that is as grotesque as it is practical. Soon the blood is flowing in full force: squished between gears, gracefully seeping, cataracting down necks, shooting out like geysers from the necks of some of our favourite British performers.

Stage productions of the musical have traditionally put Todd's boiling rage at the forefront of his character, but Johnny Depp gives a more sorrowful, repressed performance of a man who makes a constant effort not to feel anything at all. With a chalk white face and dark eyes, he looks like he has no blood left in him. He only brightens up when he's actively planning his revenge, and the only time he seems to be truly part of the living world is when he's slashing someone's throat (by the middle of the film, not an infrequent occurrence). Otherwise, he seems so haunted by death he is virtually dead himself. Sweeney's consumption with death is put to great effect in Burton's staging of the song "By the Sea," in which Lovett's fantasizes about a life of bourgeois paradise with her shattered maniac - bright, surreal scenes are undercut by a catatonic Sweeney, staring blankly ahead through beachside lounge-abouts and dinner with friends.

Mrs. Lovett, as played by HBC, is intensely driven by her desire for domestic comfort, and ghoulish in her easy acceptance of the horrendous path that takes her there. Carter's comedic timing helps her fly through her first musical number, despite her weak singing voice. Her lack of diction proves to be a real problem with some of the more up-tempo songs, which is a shame since the lyrics in this show are some of the best in all of musical theater. Depp handles his songs by going back and forth between a unembellished but effective tenor and a somewhat misplaced rocker's growl, which he gets away with because of how completely believable his portrayl is otherwise. The best voice in the film belongs to newcomer Ed Sanders, who plays a young urchin who strikes a maternal chord in Mrs. Lovett, at least until he be becomes an inconvenience to her. When he does, Carter's Mrs. Lovett suffers the loss acutely, unlike the Patti LuPone Lovett in the recent outstanding Broadway production, who was a fierce sociopath. It's a good choice for this quieter Sweeney and Lovett duo, if a little predictable and Hollywood.

There is a subplot revolving around Todd's grown daughter Joanna and her starry-eyed lover Anthony, played by Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower. Together, they look like a pair of waifs who may have fallen from the pages of Burton's sketchbook. Bower has a pleasant and emotive voice, although the cuts in material leave him with only one chance to show it off. Wisener's singing is less noteworthy. It would be my guess that these actors are singing at less than their full capability so as not to contrast too strongly with the bleak, ugly world of the film, but Wisener's strained performance of her aria, "Green Finch and Linnet Bird", makes a beautiful song come off inert. Alan Rickman is awesome, as usual, and his singing voice is as nice to listen to as his speaking voice. So we're talking really nice. Sacha Baron Cohen, as the rival barber Pirelli, is gigantic in every way.

Sweeney Todd is in many ways a return to form for Tim Burton. For the last decade, his work has exhibited some of his distinctive visual touches, but often overall they were characterized by stale tableau, unimaginative camera work and clunky attempts at humor. Much of humor in Sweeney Todd comes from from how people can remain unbothered by the most unspeakable crimes, and Burton wisely lets these moments play straight, accenting the absurdity.

The film's final moment is a striking image that exemplifies why revenge might not in fact be a great idea after all. The quiet nature of the ending may leave you surprised that it's over, but as with several other key points of the film, an eerie, almost frozen image is made majestic by the expertly orchestrated score. No one could have expected this film to end cleanly, as revenge stories rarely do. There's no redemption to be had, unless you count Tim Burton's success in bringing us another brilliant portrait of a doomed outsider, and his darkest one to date.

Obligatory Letter Grade: A-

The previous review is a joint effort between AHR and Gnerd contributor Sarah B.


Lena said...

Great review! Very funny. I feel like I was sitting there with you....oh wait, I was.

Anonymous said...

Not bad little writers you two are. There is so much bad writing on the Internet these days. Thanks for being coherent.