Friday, January 18, 2008

'Sweeney Todd': Dark, macabre and brilliant

There are films that are an acquired taste and then there’s “Sweeney Todd.” Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s audacious musical is a truly unique experience that blends song, horror, black comedy, satire and tragedy into a gothic tapestry that at times attains brilliance.

Johnny Depp plays Sweeney Todd, formerly Benjamin Barker, who returns to London after a 15-year banishment on false charges. He is seeking revenge against the crooked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, Snape in the “Harry Potter” series) who destroyed Todd’s life so many years earlier. With Todd’s wife dead and his daughter the ward of the Turpin, he sets up shop as a barber waiting for the opportunity to give Turpin an extra close shave.

Things get darker and more sordid from there. When Todd’s initial attempts at bloody retribution fail, he decides that all of humanity deserves to fall at the hand of his blade. His ally in his scheme is Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, “Fight Club, “Big Fish”), who bakes Todd’s victims into her meat pies. Suddenly business is booming at the once failing shop.

Sondheim’s musical was more overtly comic with a targeted satire on consumerism paired with the tragic tale. Burton and screenwriter John Logan (“The Aviator”) have exorcised many of those elements, although not entirely, and instead focus on the tortured soul and fractured psyche of Todd.

Burton is perhaps the only filmmaker who could make this material work so well on the screen. The gothic expressionism that has been prevalent throughout Burton’s entire career is a perfect marriage with the grim cynicism of Sondheim’s darkest work. Burton has drained much of the color from the film, creating a drab-looking London that at times borders on black and white with its use of grays.

Within Burton’s canon this is closest in look and tone to “Sleepy Hollow.” Where that film was an exercise in style, here Burton now also has substance and dramatic weight to go with his striking visuals.

As one would expect, the film is very bloody. When Todd starts slicing throats Burton goes way over-the-top to the point of comedic levels. Some may say he over-does it, but a realistic approach would have been far too graphic and unbearable to watch. As is, it is unsettling, but for those with a dark sense of humor, oddly humorous.

Fans of the stage version may be disheartened to hear that some songs have been cut short or removed entirely. But Burton uses Sondheim’s music to good affect, especially “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which, though missing lyrically, is a strong
presence on the score.

Broadway purists made a fuss over the casting of non-singers Depp, Carter and Rickman in the lead roles of a musical with some of the most melodically and lyrically complex songs in Broadway history. Everyone acclimates themselves nicely, and, while they may not have the most powerful voices, all three are decent to good singers.

The singing is more intimate than in the stage production but no less forceful. Depp in particular stands out by dynamically infusing his singing with his acting. On songs like “My Friends” and “Epiphany” Depp is spine-tinglingly good. Rickman, who does villainy like this better than just about anyone, shares an alternately sweet and creepy ballad with Depp.

Carter probably has the film’s weakest voice, but uses it well to capture the longing and sorrow hidden in Mrs. Lovett, Carter’s lovely “By the Sea” is one of the film’s few light moments.

There is much I haven’t even addressed, like the romantic subplot between Todd’s daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and the sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) who rescued Todd. Even this doesn’t play as one might expect. There’s also a brief but fine comedic turn by Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”) as a rival barber.

Given the subject matter, it is sort of extraordinary that this film even came out of the Hollywood machine at all. Kudos to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for having the nerve to put money into a film miles away from the mainstream and then having the gumption to release it days before Christmas. Now that was some sort of stroke of macabre genius.

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