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Zettel Film Reviews » Sweeney Todd – Burton’s grandiloquent slasher operetta

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Sweeney Todd – Burton’s grandiloquent slasher operetta

Oops I cut someone shaving this morning

Oops I cut someone shaving this morning

Sweeney Todd – Tim Burton

Question: is it possible for a Director with unique flair and imagination to collaborate with a musician and lyricist generally acknowledged as possessing greatness touching on genius; blessed with a charismatic and talented cast; shot, dressed and filmed with great professional skill – to produce with commitment and sincerity, a piece of work devoid of substance and almost any artistic merit?

As you leave the cinema for this one, like me I suspect you will hear arguments and disagreements all around you answering this question. Pros will be dominantly but not exclusively male; and cons, based on my experience, will have a nice line in succinctness even irony – “crap…no let me qualify that…absolute crap” being a few choice bons mots that on the way out of the cinema entertained me more than the preceding 95 minutes inside it had done.

Sondheim has always been the aficionado’s creator of musicals and the 1979 Broadway debut of his Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is to this day regarded as a masterpiece. I am no slouch in admiring many of Sondheim’s songs and saw a luminous production of his Assassins at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years back. By contrast I found the music in this film ponderous, pretentious, frequently banal and when accompanying the gruesome scenes of slashing throat-cutting, just plain bathetic. Nothing here to compare say with the terrifying effectiveness of Kubrick’s use of music when Alex and his fellow Droogs in A Clockwork Orange kick a man to death with horrifying style and carefree indifference to the soul-chilling refrain of Singin’ in The Rain. The grotesque counterpoint there between the ‘real’ hateful viciousness of what you were seeing and the light joyous fun of the music was used to devastating effect. After the first few blood-spurting throats in ST, I’m afraid as Sondheim’s music tries, ineffectively to wind-up tension, one just thinks oh for God’s sake get on with it. ‘Sweeney slash boredom dot org’.

I think animation is the right medium for Burton’s imaginative talent. His eye and deep instinct for the grotesque turns his real people into puppet-like figures. He would have been naturally at home with the horror plays at Le Theatre de Grand Guignol (Mr Punch) in Paris which gave its name to the amoral, graphic violence film genre within which Burton’s visual style fits best. Although Johnny Depp’s brooding, inevitably charismatic performance recalls his Edward Scissorhands, unlike with that film, Burton cannot generate a shred of genuine emotion other than repugnance and disgust in ST. And even those emotions lose any credibility and gradually decay into tedium and indifference. True Helena Bonham- Carter occasionally arouses a wry, guilty smile as the thrifty pie-baking recycler of the result of Depp’s “I cut someone shaving this morning” antics. And she and Depp share by far and away the best, for me really the only really effective song in the piece, the darkly witty A Little Priest when they lyrically compare the relative merits of various occupations for pie contents – Poet, Vicar, Fop etc like a couple of chefs discussing the merits of free range versus organic beef, British versus New Zealand lamb etc.

The plot in fact plays out like a Punch and Judy show. Barber Benjamin Barker is happily married to Lucy. They have a baby daughter Johanna. Evil, hanging Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) lusts after Lucy so with the help of his gruesome gopher Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) disposes of Benjamin to Australia on trumped-up charges. Ten years later Benjamin now calling himself Sweeney Todd returns to revenge himself. This becomes an obsession when he is told his wife killed herself and his daughter is Turpin’s Ward. Befriended by Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs Lovett, proud purveyor of the “worst pies in London” protein content ranging from cockroach to cat with the odd rat for taste, Sweeney and Mrs L set up a sort of cottage pie business where she renders back unto her pie-eating customers, some of their own number – in-a, rather than upper crust.

For Mrs L, but not we think the revenge-obsessed Sweeney, it is love at first bite. But in a macabre marriage born in hell, the two thrive in what the frequently droll Mrs L calls an “honest little business”. Sweeney DIY’s an automatic barber’s chair, a model of production-line efficiency that tips his victims head first onto the concrete in Mrs L’s basement – (never mind the razor, it’s the fall that’s gonna kill you). His vengeance generalises into a lethal misanthropy leading him as we may say, to cut through swathes of innocent Londoners on the way to giving Turpin, and Bamford on the way, a stylish razor cut windpipe.

A sub-plot of Sweeney’s saviour from the sea after he had escaped, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) rescuing Johanna from the lunatic asylum to which Turpin confined her after she refused to marry him, is pretty risible.

I know this is one of those films where not to like it is not to get it. Geddit? And I have only ever hated one genre of movies – horror. Of course it looks good largely in monochrome with an interesting technique of allowing certain colours, notably red (no surprise there), to seep into parts of the image. (Even this looks stolen from Coppola’s Dracula). But to me Sweeney Todd is tedious rather than terrifying, pretentious rather than profound. If this ever had anything great about it, I rather think it all got lost on the journey from stage to screen. It has been said that Burton has been faithful to the original stage musical. That only recalls to me William Goldman’s comment that a film adaptation must never be faithful to the original material – but must always be true to its spirit. For me there was here little genuine spirit to be true to.

(February 2008)

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