Thursday, December 20, 2007

Burton’s Sweeney Todd: Good but Way Too Gory


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: “Sweeney Todd” director Tim Burton (center) and star Johnny Depp (right) confer on set. (Photo: Peter Mountain / DreamWorks)

It’s only taken 28 years, and there’ve been at least two TV productions in the meantime, but Stephen Sondheim’s classic dark musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has finally made it to the big screen in a visually stunning, appropriately moody and Gothic adaptation by director Tim Burton featuring his favorite star, Johnny Depp, in the title role. For the most part, it’s a triumph; Burton’s direction is astonishing, Dante Ferretti’s production design appropriately stolid and imposing (reminiscent of such slient classics as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and The Phantom of the Opera) and the actors well suited to their parts even though they don’t always do full justice to Sondheim’s score. But there’s one aspect of the film that keeps it from greatness and makes it off-putting in the wrong way.

Sweeney Todd began life in London in the 1830’s, the brainchild of a journalist named George Dibden-Pitt. He concocted the basic story — a barber goes mad and slashes the throats of his customers, drops them to the basement of his building via a trap door under his barber chair, and his landlady and lover, Mrs. Lovett, disposes of them in a giant meat grinder, bakes them into pies and serves them to her unsuspecting customers — for a “penny dreadful,” a cheap and wildly inaccurate “news” publication whose closest modern counterpart was the recently deceased Weekly World News. Widely believed to be true — indeed, quite a few people reviewing Sondheim’s show seemed to think it was based on a real case — the story was such a sensation that Dibden-Pitt wrote it up as a play, and it was a smash hit on stage.

In 1968 actor Christopher Bond was working at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent in the British midlands when, having had a great success with another 19th century melodrama, his bosses announced that Sweeney Todd would be their next production even though no one at the theatre had actually read it. When they finally secured the old Dibden-Pitt script just two weeks before rehearsals were to begin, Bond recalled, “On the page the show was crude, repetitive and simplistic — hardly any plot and less character development.” Bond did a complete rewrite, keeping only the basic premise and inventing a motive for Sweeney’s madness. The show was well received and Bond’s script was performed in several theatres across England, finally reaching London in the mid-1970’s — where Stephen Sondheim saw it and determined to adapt it into a musical.

Sondheim originally conceived of Sweeney Todd as an opera, with sung recitatives linking song-like arias — a plan he might well have been better off sticking to, as the alternations between spoken dialogue and singing are even more jarring here than they usually are in musicals. He wrote some of the most powerful music of his career for this dark story, though this writer disagrees with the critics who regard the result as Sondheim’s masterpiece (the later and far warmer Sunday in the Park with George is), and with a book by Hugh Wheeler, direction by Harold Prince and orchestrations by longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick, the show opened in New York on March 1, 1979 and was a sensation.

Sweeney Todd has had a long history on both big and small screens. There were two silent versions from Britain in 1926 and 1928, then a talkie from 1936 starring Tod Slaughter — one of those relentlessly hammy actors who can’t ask to be passed the salt at the dinner table without making it sound like it’s evoking horrible traumas. In 1970 it got a Hammer-style adaptation as a straight horror film called Bloodthirsty Butchers and then, even after Sondheim’s musical, the basic story got two non-musical TV adaptations in 1998 and 2006 with surprisingly top-tier talent for a horror story: the 1998 version was directed by John Schlesinger and starred Ben Kingsley as Todd, while the 2006 version boasted Beowulf star Ray Winstone in the title role. Meanwhile, the musical was also videotaped for two TV productions, a 1982 performance in Los Angeles with most of the original Broadway cast — including the incomparable Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as Todd — and a concert version from San Francisco in 2001 with George Hearn as Todd and Patti LuPone as Lovett.

Where the Burton Sweeney Todd scores most is atmosphere, something of which Burton has always been a master — as witness how he was able to turn contemporary New York into a Gothic horror zone in the two Batman films he directed (an accomplishment the later directors in the series have tried for and fallen short). His version of 1830’s London, aided by Ferretti’s spectacular set designs, really looks like what Sondheim’s lyrics tell us it is: “A hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And it’s filled with people/Who are filled with shit/And the vermin of the world/Inhabit it.” It’s a city where rats (both the four-legged kind and their human equivalents) run freely through the streets and Mrs. Lovett doesn’t seem to care that cockroaches happily use her baking table as an exercise yard.

For the most part, Burton’s and Sondheim’s dark sensibilities mesh perfectly. The relentless, corrosive cynicism of the show is ably captured in John Logan’s screenplay, though the class consciousness of the original is toned down a bit and far too little is made of the irony that Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop becomes a sensational success once she and Todd start stocking her pies with their sinister secret ingredient. It’s true that there’s nobody in this story we really like — Todd’s madness is explained by the fact that 15 years before Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, who practically steals the film) coveted Todd’s wife and framed him for a crime to get rid of him, but neither Burton nor Logan seem especially interested in What Makes Sweeney Run beyond that tidbit of backstory — and the ingénues, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), who returns on the same ship that brings Todd back from exile, and Johanna (Jayne Wisener), whom Judge Turpin has raised from childhood and now wants to marry, and who is really Todd’s daughter, are too boring and ill-defined as characters to be truly sympathetic.

The casting is a bit more problematical. By now Tim Burton has become the Johnny Depp director, in the same way John Ford was the John Wayne director, John Huston the Humphrey Bogart director and Douglas Sirk the Rock Hudson director. In this sort of partnership, the director manages to get the best performances out of the star, while the star contributes his financial clout to give the director the chance to make his quirkiest, most personal films. Though as a personality type Ray Winstone would probably have been a better choice for this version as well as the nonmusical TV movie from last year, Depp is appropriately menacing and edgy even though he plays Todd with an almost unrelieved sullenness and gloom, never exulting either over his good deeds or his evil ones.

Helena Bonham Carter is good as Mrs. Lovett, though her characterization is hardly on a par with Angela Lansbury’s from the original Broadway production. In fact, throughout the film both leads do their own singing in careful, “correct” voices — much the way everyone in the cast of the film Chicago except Queen Latifah sang — and it’s a shock to come from this movie to the original-cast CD and hear Lansbury and Cariou belting out this music in devil-may-care screams that are obviously far closer to what Sondheim wanted.

Not that Sondheim is entirely blameless for the problems with this movie. He wasn’t interested in writing an opera; with Sweeney Todd he was straining at the limits of the conventions of the Broadway musical but careful not to break them completely. Sweeney Todd is full of songs that evoke wit and irony, some of them — like “Pretty Women,” the piece Todd and Judge Turpin duet on when they confront each other; or “By the Sea,” where Todd and Mrs. Lovett permit themselves to dream of ongoing success and bourgeois respectability with their gross business partnership — ironic in a way that contributes to the force of the piece. Others, like “A Little Priest,” the famous and delightful duet between Todd and Mrs. Lovett in which they discuss what flavors people in various occupations will bring to the pies, seem to be there more to amuse the audience than to advance the story or theme.

Burton has made a few eccentric decisions. He and Logan decided to eliminate the famous choruses that introduce the stage version and help advance its plot. Instead, Burton uses a more cinematic device: a silent prologue (though using Sondheim’s chorus music as instrumental background) showing gears grinding and discharging a red substance into the London sewers. Stranger is Burton’s decision to cast Tobias Ragg, barker for medicine man Pirelli (Sasha Baron “Borat” Cohen) and later for Mrs. Lovett, as a child (Ed Sanders). In Bond’s version of the play and in the stage musical this character was an adult; making him a kid turns his big song, “Not While I’m Around,” famously romanticized by Barbra Streisand on The Broadway Album, into something that sounds like it belongs in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Indeed, there are eccentric musical reminiscences throughout the film; Pirelli’s song sounds a lot like “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville and the quartet — one of the most powerful bits of music in the score — sounds like the quintet from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics).

But Burton’s worst mistake — and what keeps this often intensely chilling film from achieving true greatness — is the gore. He can’t bring himself just to suggest Todd’s murderous career. Every time Sweeney Todd gets a prospective victim into his barber chair in the flat above Mrs. Lovett’s restaurant, Burton has to show Todd’s razor slashing the victim’s neck and the victim bleeding profusely. It gets to the point where we’re no longer thinking of the horror of Todd’s actions; we’re bracing ourselves for the blood — just like we would be watching a cheap direct-to-DVD slasher movie made by a no-name hack. On two key occasions, Burton isn’t content to show the blood oozing out of the victims; he has to have it spurt in geyser-like fountains reminiscent of the ones in the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — and acceptable in that film only because the whole concept was deliberately ridiculous.

Constrained by the movies’ production code, filmmakers of the 1930’s and 1940’s developed ways to hint at horror without actually showing it. Indeed, RKO producer Val Lewton made a series of films from 1942 to 1946 that elevated that to a high artistic principle, scaring audiences with shadows and sound effects rather than splashing blood and guts across the screen. It seems strange that Burton, in a December 18 Los Angeles Times interview, would express his admiration for “a certain style to those old horror movies — starring Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre — that you don’t see much anymore,” without realizing that the less-is-more approach enforced by the production code was the source of that “certain style.” Sweeney Todd is a story that cries out for that kind of subtlety, and for an approach that would keep our focus on what its horrors mean rather than what they look like clinically.

It’s a pity, because so much of Sweeney Todd the movie does work — but whether you’ll like it depends on whether you can see past the gore and appreciate Burton’s marvelous command of atmosphere, Sondheim’s wonderful (if not always appropriate) music and Depp’s taciturn performance in a role that under another director he might have drowned in Pirates of the Caribbean hamminess.

“Sweeney Todd” opens nationwide Friday, December 21.