Tuesday, December 25, 2007

God, That's Good!

Many films within the career of director Tim Burton have oftentimes been problematic. His elaborate set costume design as well as art direction have often been the most inspired aspects of many of his works. Even when he has attempted to go into suitable fantasy premises and material, there has always been a missing link between the pristine imagery and lacksadaisical storytelling. While he has made some good films, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Ed Wood especially, with bulk of the story coming from an alternate source, Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is his greatest achievement to date.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a quick run down. Sweeney Todd follows the tale of Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a barber who was married to a beautiful woman named Lucy and had a daughter named Joanna. Their lives were peaceful until Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) begins lusting after Lucy and has Benjamin falsely accused of a crime and banished from London. The film (and musical) start many years later as Benjamin, under the alias of Sweeney Todd, returns to London to have his revenge on Turpin and to find his daughter. He wanders into Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop, infamous for being the worst pies in London. She recognizes him for who he is and tells him that his wife is dead and that Turpin now keeps Joanna locked away from anyone. With Mrs. Lovett at his side, Sweeney seeks vengeance on the judge and attempts to reclaim his daughter from the brutal society that took him away from her.

Based on the incredible musical by Stephen Sondheim, the essence of Tim Burton’s art is discovered with the creation of a true filmic adaptation of a stage musical. While many have claimed a resurgence in the movie musical, most of the new film musicals have come from the stage and seemed, well, stagey. While some of these adaptations have been dreadful (The Producers, Rent) and some have been better than average (Hairspray), few film artists have been on board to attempt to fit these musicals into true film form. Tim Burton’s has made some daring choice in redefining Sweeney Todd, including the cutting of many beloved songs, but they all work for the betterment of the film and still preserve Sondheim’s source material.

Many of these decisions work because of the tuned in performances by all of the performers. Although not a “trained” singer, Johnny Depp’s version of Sweeney has a dark resonance and mad passion behind the lyrics. Depp makes Sweeney seem on the brink of collapse and disaster throughout the film and his voice channels this emotion. Even more striking is the performance of Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Even though she helps Sweeney along on his path for vengeance, she brings a certain tenderness to the character which makes her Mrs. Lovett a more powerful force within the narrative. More than an accomplice, Mrs. Lovett works as Sweeney’s shadow and kind of mentor. However, when Toby enters the picture, Mrs. Lovett slowly begins transferring her admiration and relationship with Sweeney. Although Act Two in the musical takes only about 40 minutes of screen time, where most of the killing takes place, it builds contains the two most perfect numbers that illustrate how well Burton’s film is executed. When Sweeney Todd is blasted with bright color in “By the Sea”, it deepens the comic effect of the song and how impossible any such solution is for Sweeney. When the camera circles the characters and transfers from color back into the damp and dark world, any hope for a peaceful conclusion is shown to be impossible. There certainly is no place like London.

Something also has to be said for Burton’s sense of comedy. While there darkly comedic elements in Sondheim’s musical, Burton turns to the modern horror genre as the source of laughs. Based on a cinema of excess, Burton overdoes the blood and gore when Sweeney kills to use it in the same manner as The Evil Dead. More than just that, Sweeney starts killing with a sense of rhythm that fits with the music and speeds up as he becomes completely obsessed with killing the judge and completing his violent quest. However gruesome the material becomes, Burton makes it hard to become overly disgusted even as blood squirts directly into the camera.

Throughout the film, there are various characters who come in and our with varying degrees of importance. Sacha Baron Cohen is excellent as the rival barber Signor Pirelli, but even more excellent and important is his young apprentice Toby played terrifically by first time film actor Ed Sanders. Toby brings about a turning point in the relationship between Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney. Toby calls into question what Mrs. Lovett has gotten herself into and their connection is essential in understanding the final impact of the conclusion of the film. There is so much comically repetitive violence in the final hour of the film that, at first, the film seems to burn out before its climax. However, when observing the subtleties in character more closely, the final act and closing shot of the film can be comprehended as a devastating revelation.

While Burton’s films have had their problems in the past, there has never been a story like Sweeney Todd that has so perfectly matched everything that defines Burton. For the first time, the storytelling is finally on par with the visuals and there is definite substance behind Burton’s always impressive style. Even when the end of the film escalates to a astonishing pace and nearly derails, the great, emotional performances keep it on its tracks. While keeping intact Sondheim’s intentions and themes, Burton relishes in the material and takes careful steps in reinventing this perennial music for cinema. Pardon the overbearing cliche, but there is no doubt that Sweeney Todd is a triumph for Tim Burton and is the new benchmark for future stage to screen adaptations.

by James Hansen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I almost entirely agree, and I LOVED this adaptation of a phenomenal musical, I personally wish Mrs. Lovett had been sung differently. I like your take on her character being more tender in this version than in others, but her lack of vocal variation meant a loss of the humor in her situation, which Angela Lansbury did so well.

And if Burton was going to choose unknowns for the parts of Antony and Joanna, I feel like he should have done so in the interest of either the story or the music---or God forbid both. But neither of them were brilliant choices in either acting or the vocalism required for two of the best pieces of the musical: Joanna and Green Finch and Linnet Bird. I was, to say it, bummed.