Monday, December 24, 2007


Those above will get served down below

By Edward Copeland
It was with the greatest of trepidation that I faced the prospect of Tim Burton filming Stephen Sondheim's greatest musical, especially with the casting of actors who admitted their lack of vocal skills. It's with some relief that I can report that the film of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is neither as bad as I feared nor as good as it could have been.

Burton's direction moves the action along nicely and the sets and atmospherics are beyond reproach, making the musical even more intimate for film and resisting the urge to "open" it up for the movies. The musical cuts didn't bother me that much: I fully understand why the great "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" wouldn't quite transfer to a film version.

However, the most pleasant surprise for me is Johnny Depp. Is he the strongest of singers? Hardly. Still, he manages to pull Sweeney off, even if his look appears to be a cross between Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. His somewhat soft voice belies the intensity he delivers in the nonmusical parts, but Depp pulls the part off and deserves to be commended.

The same cannot be said for his Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Supposedly, Sondheim had final casting approval so he's got some explaining to do in regards to how he let this disastrous casting of the director's girlfriend go through. I hope Sondheim got a check big enough to make him forget his betrayal of his own material.

When Mrs. Lovett sings of herself as a woman of "limited wind," she ain't kidding when Bonham Carter is inhabiting her role. I found myself in the surprising position of wishing they'd cut more of the music, because when Bonham Carter sings Lovett's wistful fantasy "By the Sea," it brings the film to a dead halt, saved only by the fact that Depp keeps Sweeney's intensity in silence throughout Lovett's colorful dream sequence. If only Depp had a partner who could really deliver.

Unfortunately, a lot of the laughs of the great "A Little Priest" get lost in Bonham Carter's delivery. Burton in general has chosen to emphasize the bleak and the bloody over the dark humored throughout the adaptation, but this Sweeney Todd still could have worked and, in fact, mostly does.

It's just Helena Bonham Carter who sticks out like a sore thumb. The other casting choices are quite good. Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall as Judge Turpin and his faithful Beadle Bamford are more sinister than in any stage version I've seen. Bamford usually comes off as more oaf than bad guy on stage, but he's a true villain here.

Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisner as the thwarted lovers Anthony and Johanna perform quite well and don't interfere much with the action. The real find and the best decision made for the movie is by casting the role of Toby with a boy (Edward Sanders) instead of as a slow-witted young adult, so it makes his eventual actions all the more horrifying.

Even better, this kid who I've never seen before saves "Nothing's Gonna Harm You," his duet with Lovett, and shows once again what a poor choice Bonham Carter is.

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Ed, I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt Helena Bonham Carter was supremely miscast (she must have the greatest punany since Deborah Kerr). While I think no one can touch Ms. Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, I didn't go in with that chip on my shoulder; I liked Patti LuPone's take on Broadway. Depp's shortcomings as a singer are greatly assisted by his ability to sell the character. Bonham Carter has no such savior. She isn't the first actress cast because she was banging the director (Nancy Allen made a career out of it), but that still doesn't explain Sondheim's approval. Isn't he immune to womanly wiles?

Alan Rickman was great, but I have an Alan Rickman bias. I liked the way he sang, and he and Spall were hissably good. I thought Bower and Wisner didn't add much to the proceedings and were WAY too pretty, but Ed Sanders was a find.

Burton's direction is OK, but this sorely needed the black sense of humor of the musical. Playing this straight, with all the absurd geysers of blood, is a mistake in tone. Some of Sondheim's lyrics are darkly hilarious, and all that is lost. Someone said Meryl Streep and Alan Rickman should have had the title roles. I'd go for that.

This should be in IMAX 3-D too, so we can toast marshmallows on a certain character when they burn the hell up.
Personally, I found Helena Bonham-Carter to be very, very good in the role. Her voice isn't the best, but I still found it rather pleasant. However, her acting more than makes up for this. I really felt that she understood the character and she didn't try to justify Mrs. Lovett. On the whole; the film was very good and is one of my favourites of this year.
At this very minute, I have just arrived back home after seeing Sweeney Todd with a gaggle of people I work with - all theater people. Everyone was familiar with the material, and virtually all of us revere it. There was a very diverse range of reactions, ranging from euphoria to dissapointment and/or outrage.

I experienced neither. I didn't hate it (the thud you just heard was Odie hitting the floor after fainting from the shock of that statement). I agree with you that a better film can - and should - have been made from this material, but Burton's interpretation, while flawed, held my interest, and had some good things going for it.

Perhaps it was a wise choice to make a bold - dare I say radical - departure from the traditional approach to Sweeney Todd. This film goes back to the origins of the penny dreadful - it is bleak as all hell, gory as sin, and genuinely terrifying. On those terms, it worked - because that's what the legend of Sweeney Todd, as it dates back to the 19th century, is all about. It's a Victorian horror story which does the Brothers Grimm grimmer by a longshot.

But Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is more than just that. It takes the penny dreadful as jumping off place, and spins it into something that exists on many different levels. For starters, it actually utilizes the theatrical traditions of the 19th century (specifically, the music hall) to creates a rich fusion of horror, black comedy, and social commentary.

Burton's version worked better than John Doyle's recent off-B'way revival, but in both cases, I think they went too dark - showing only one side of what is a multi-dimensional, infinitely complex piece of work. I still maintain that humor is a crucial element of Sondheim's masterpiece; it serves a vital function in that it allows the audience to get into the show rather than being lulled into a morose state of submission by unabated doom and dread. Burton's Sweeney is played all on one level - it delivers the chills, but it has no texture. There's no energy or lightness to balance out the gloom (except for the "By the Sea" sequence, which frankly felt like something out of a different movie).

I liked Depp much more than I expected, but I feel the same way about im as I do about Burton's approach - he plays everything in one key, and there aren't any different levels to the performance. It's all done on a low boil; well done but without much shade or variation. There's something operatic about the way the role has been conceived by Sondheim - I think the rage and despair have to be explicit in order for it to work. Depp was too solemn and self-contained for me; I kept waiting for him to break out, and he never did. As an actor, he's compacter, but I wish he'd arrived overdone. But his singing was fine.

Ed, Odie and I are in agreement about Bonham Carter. She simply isn't equipped to handle the role, although I could see how, for the purposes of what Burton intended, they had to steer the character away from the broad comic traditions of the English music hall (which is what Lansbury's performance was based on). And Odie....she still wasn't as bad as Marion Cotillard. In this one instance, I'll take someone who simply wasn't up to the job over a style of mimicry so exaggerated that it no longer bore any relation to recognizable human behavior and was unintentionally repulsive. You'll see what I mean - it's like watching some kind of bizarre muppet on steroids.

Casting a child in the role of Toby worked so brilliantly that I'm amazed no one thought of it until now (perhaps because it's so obvious, it just never occured to anyone). The young lovers were very weak, and didn't create much of a presence - but they'd both make great print models. But I agree with Ed that Rickman and Spall got it just right; and what a GREAT choice it was to have Sweeney lure the Beadle to his death by coming on to him - The Beadle thinks he's going up to the barber shop for SEX. If you missed it, watch the scene again...nothing ambiguous about the way Spall and Depp play it.

To sum it up: I'm with Ed. Better than I thought. But it could have been better.
Since the humor has been drained out almost as much as some of the victims, I thought Depp worked. He would have been great I imagine at some of the gags (they completely missed his sense of frustration when he sees his one customer has brought his daughter), but in the movie he was in, I thought he was pretty damn good.
Oh, Sweeney absolutely CANNOT be funny =- not be ANY means. You misread me.

There's something operatic about the way the role has been conceived - I think Sweeney's grief and rage need to be made explicit. Depp was so self-contained it all stayed beneath the surface. That's what I mean when I said he played it all on one level.

But I still thought he was good.
I had to sit through two screenings of “Sweeney Todd” to erase my memories of the Broadway cast (I saw it in 1979 with Anglela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the leads.) But I came to appreciate the unique approach of the cinematic “Sweeney Todd” and to judge it on its own merits. Yes, Depp and Bonham Carter are superb actors, and their untrained, light singing voices somehow suit the intimacy of the silver screen. One thing I wish the film had is a greater sense of fun with the waltz number, “A Little Priest” (in which Todd and Mrs. Lovett are imaginging what various types of “professionals” would taste like as meat pies). The Broadway Todd and Lovett were clearly entertaining themselves with their speculations, laughing through the song. But in the film, the scene was less “black comedy” and merely “black” in tone. This is true, generally, of Burton’s approach to the whole film. Nevertheless, I loved every moment of the movie. About the controversial work of Helena Bonham Carter? She won me over, and I'm a Lansbury fan. Bonham Carter's "Mrs. Lovett" was more vulnerable and sexier than Lansbury's, and not just because of Bonham Carter's youth. In the film, Mrs. Lovett is silmultaneously seductive and corpse-like, a woman driven into a malaise by years of hard-scrabble struggle. I found that she exuded a degree of pathos that worked, and I truly felt her love for "Toby" come through in the achingly sweet "Not While I'm Around". Yes, Ed Sanders out-sang Helena on that ballad, but the tears in Bonham Carter's eyes, during that song, were haunting. Kudos and bouquets all around. The screen "Sweeney" and the stage "Sweeney" are different animals, but each one roars like hell!
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