So we attended the tale of SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Tim Burton version.
On the whole I liked it. The score has a massive amount of sheer OOMPH, the lyrics are spectacular (if you want dance numbers, just watch those words leap to and fro), and I enjoyed the performances, especially Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall. I was intrigued to see that Johnny Depp’s vocals boast their own producer…a touch of digital pitch-correction going on there, Fiona suggests.
There are a few unfortunate things about the film, and I’m going to dwell on them, I’m afraid. It’s a testament to the strength of the story and score and acting that the film entertains as well as it does, because these problems could really butcher a lesser film.
1) The Look. I think it’s too murky, and this combines with the C.G. backdrops and the theatrically enclosed narrative to make it rather claustrophobic. This might be OK if it’s your kind of thing, but since films with a very C.G. look — like “300” — tend to feel a little stifling no matter how the filmmakers try to open them out and give them sweep, I’d have awarded points to Burton for breathing some air into this.
(Very dark films sometimes look sharper on DVD than on the big screen — Darius Khondji’s most eye-straining work sometimes has this quality. So Dariusz Wolski’s smeary work here may likewise shine on home vid — the stills look much clearer than the movie did when I saw it. Perversely, Wolski’s lensing of DARK CITY was radiant by comparison.)
2) The Plot. I don’t know the play but I was sure there had been some kind of ineffectual tampering when we got to the aftermath of the climax. I looked it up on Wikipedia and, although I hadn’t guessed the exact nature of the changes, tinkering had indeed taken place and the ending of the original sounded markedly more effective. I can’t go into this without major spoilers, but it’s largely a structural thing. Burton has never had much story sense, tending to favour image over word and missing the Hitchcockian principle of telling stories with pictures. Burton’s images are often stand-alone tableaux or, at most, gags.
Todd spares his daughter’s life for no convincing reason, and then she disappears from the narrative altogether. In the play, the authorities arrive at the end, obviously alerted by her, so at least there’s a pay-off to her survival. The film also soft-pedals young Tobias’ madness at the end, so that his killing Sweeney isn’t quite credible.)
3) The Squeamishness. This might be an odd thing to charge an 18-Rated musical with, but it seemed to me that the makers were rather shy of the whole cannibalism thing. You wouldn’t know, from the mise-en-scene, that there was anything unusual about the pies all those extras were munching. I can sort of understand Burton wanting to hold back on the horrors of the kitchen until they are discovered by little Tobias — except that doesn’t sound like the sort of narrative concern that would even occur to Timbo. It feels like he’s been told he can have his head with the throat-slitting, but could he please hold back on the old anthropophagy? And since that’s what the whole film’s about, it strikes me as an unfortunate area to ellide. When somebody doesn’t actually want to tell the story they’re telling, it never bodes well.
4) The Momentum. The thrust of the story is maintained fairly well, and that’s something that musicals often sacrifice in order to celebrate a moment. But this film has too oppressive a milieuto really get away with that, so it needs to drive forward, from a bad situation to a worse: without shark-like constant forward motion, the audience isn’t going to want to hang about waiting for the next sordid crisis. The sequence which damages the momentum most is the song “By the Sea,” which doesn’t advance the story at all, but may be absolutely essential as the only scene to admit bright light, blue sky and fresh air into the film. It helps the sense of space even as it damages the sense of time. My theory is that the song may have been necessary on stage to show how Mrs. Lovett feels about Todd, but due to the huge amounts of emotional information conveyed by Helena Bonham-Carter in close-up, it’s redundant several times over in film terms.
5) Alan Rickman. Although he fills his trews prodigiously, Rickman has an unpleasant singing voice and is too predictable a baddie to offer much here, except when Judge Turpin has a sentimental moment. Rickman wisely makes the most of these: it’s unexpected to see how moved Turpin is by Todd’s lie that his ward has “repented” and wants to see him again.
6) Blocking. David Bordwell has argued very coherently that the art of complex blocking in Hollywood films has almost been lost. Characters either “walk and talk” or “stand and deliver” — no longer do they stalk around each other and move from close-up to long-shot and back within a single take. Burton has a reputation as a visual stylist, but he struggles to bring the songs to dramatic life through dynamic movement: shot as if they were dialogue scenes in a very dark episode of Eastenders, the songs feel somewhat squashed. Since this musical doesn’t use dance at all, a choreographic interplay of camera and actor would have been nice — oddly, this is something Burton has often brought to action sequences in other films. He does a bit of his trademark swooping, but that’s a bit overpowering. The Minnelli touch is lacking.
7) The deplorable absence of Christopher Lee. It was announced early on that Lee would play a part, but he was later dropped (along with the other ghosts). He would have been the best singer in it. Lee has suggested that his part was cut due to time difficulties: Johnny Depp’s daughter became ill during filming and some shooting days were lost. In which case, one can only sympathise, and admire Depp’s performance even more.
Still, despite my admiration for Johnny and Helena’s work here, I can’t avoid a little thought experiment, as to who could have been cast if the film had been rushed into production in 1979, after the play’s premiere…
BLUE SKY CASTING #5:
SWEENEY TODD: the British horror version
Director: Piers Haggard. His experience with the BBC period musical Pennies From Heaven and the Tigon horror BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW makes him a fitting choice. and his lovely and talented daughter Daisy would have been just the right age to play the baby Johanna. (Daisy, who always cries at the end of KING KONG because the big gorilla reminds her of her dad.)
SWEENEY TODD: Christopher Lee.
MRS. NELLIE LOVETT: Barbara Steele.
ANTHONY HOPE: Tim Curry.
JOHANNA: Britt Ekland, dubbed by Annie Ross.
TOBIAS RAGG: Dexter Fletcher.
JUDGE TURPIN: Peter Cushing.
BEADLE BAMFORD: Donald Pleasence.
BEGGAR WOMAN: Sheila Keith.
ADOLFO PIRELLI: Vincent Price.
Hmmm, I can’t quite decide which version I’d rather see. With my usual perversity, I think I’ll plump for the one that doesn’t exist.