Sunday, January 20, 2008

Vengeful Confection

The genre of the musical is one to be regarded by the serious moviegoer as crabgrass in the lawn of movies. From the sickeningly over-the-top products manufactured by that glitz-ridden dream factory that was MGM in the 30s, to the audiovisual stress test that was Moulin Rouge, film history provides no shortage of irritating creations that teach us nothing about life and exist simply to give singing non-actors a chance to exhibit their “talent”. With Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton provides us with a refreshing exception to this rule, and makes a triumphant contribution to 21st century cinema in the process.

Based on Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 stage musical of the same name, the story follows Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a successful barber with a young wife and daughter. After banishing Barker to Australia on false charges, the predatory Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) snares the poor man’s wife and eventually ruins her life. The evil arbitrator holds the daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), hostage throughout her childhood. When a prison-weary Barker returns by ship years later, he embarks on an unwavering quest for vengeance, dead set on killing anyone who did him wrong. The milieu for this blood-soaked saga: 19th Century London.

The film opens with the roaring blast of an organ’s doomful toccata played to the familiar Dreamworks bumper. This music will gradually, smoothly transition into the ovation-worthy opening number, “There’s No Place Like London”. Never mind waiting for the first scene – much less the opening credits! – to create atmosphere. To paraphrase what Ingmar Bergman remarked in reference to the staggered opening credits of his film Persona, this is a story whose insistence to be told is so strong, it simply cannot wait to begin.

The sound is soon joined by the camera’s first glimpses, the lugubrious London of Dickens’ darkest chapters. In the space of two minutes and without a single word of dialogue (although relying a bit too heavily on CGI), Burton baptizes us with flickering images of a world with which we are unfamiliar. This London is not the jolly metropolis that supplied the backdrop for Peter Pan. This is a bleak, brutal world where high-reaching chimney stacks belch black clouds of smoke overhead. This is a world whose streets are littered with pickpockets lurking around dark corners; a world where starving, orphaned children turn to the bottle in despair, where the gap between the rich and the poor stretches wider than the filth-ridden Thames, and where life is cheaper than magic potions hawked by traveling swindlers.

Soon after the credits begin, the scene is greeted by rain…only this precipitation is not water. The downpour is reminiscent of Taxi Driver, another tale of revenge set against a gritty urban backdrop, where Robert De Niro’s sociopathic cabbie prophetically informs us that “someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets”. From this puce, viscous fluid emerges a livid, unbending line that flows steadily downward. In this single, simple image we are given the perfect metaphor for Benjamin Barker, now going by the name Sweeney Todd. Like that downward gliding blood drip, Todd walks with an unwavering, cocksure swagger that will not stop until he avenges his dear beloved bride. And may God Himself be damned, this possessed avenging angel will stop at nothing to claim his retribution.

Todd soon reconnects with the landlady at his old quarters, the homely but congenial Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). There, she informs him of his wife’s fate while preparing, by her own admission, the worst pies in London. The egregious disregard of sanitation practices therein would make Upton Sinclair nauseous. The pair soon strike up an agreement: he will lure customers to his establishment with a shave, slash their throats with a razor, and with the aid of a cleverly installed trap door, discharge their bodies into the basement. There, Mrs. Lovett will grind the corpses into scrumptious meat pies. Business picks up and the two of them turn a handsome profit, but once a frightening secret is unveiled, tragedy strikes. To reveal any more of the plot would be a crime against humanity.

One would think that such grisly subject matter would hardly make for two hours of first class film entertainment, but in the hands of a cinemaestro like Tim Burton, a misanthropic opera that has the depth of Shakespearean tragedy and the delicious horror of Grand Guignol is born. The dark side of life is hardly new ground for Mr. Burton, but since Todd marks his first foray into the musical world, he succeeds in simultaneously working from familiar territory and challenging himself as an artist.

In Johnny Depp, Burton has found the perfect actor with whom to collaborate. This is their sixth film together and with each outing, the effort steadily improves. With Todd, their pairing has earned their alliance the right to be counted alongside the greatest actor-director partnerships in all of cinema: witness Ford-Wayne, Scorsese-De Niro, Kurosawa-Mifune, and Bergman-Von Sydow, to name just a few. The teaming of the bravura Burton with the dynamic Depp fits like a hand in a glove…or, in this case, a corpse in a coffin.

Though Todd is a musical that demands a presentational approach (nothing is duller than turning a talking play into a static talking picture), Burton skillfully exercises creative economy in translating this grand theatrical production from stage to screen. He never lets the pace become languid, but he also keeps the action from going over the top. During the magnificently executed musical numbers, for example, a less capable director would have let the urge to tear the scene down the middle with wrecking ball subtlety rip, but Burton keeps the firepower in check. It’s a slender thread to walk, and Burton never missteps.

Regarding the contributions of Mr. Burton’s production staff, technical wizardry is on display. The sets of Dante Ferretti burst with vivid richness. The subdued hues of London contrast beautifully with the expressive palate of the fantasy sequences. Not since The Last Emperor has this reviewer seen such a splendidly designed motion picture. Equally worthy of praise is the brilliant camerawork of Dariusz Wolski. A gifted cinematographer with a natural eye for composition, Wolski lovingly lights his close-ups with artistry indicative of Francis Bacon. During the strident songs, his camera dances as nimbly as Nureyev in his prime. Giving the film its importunate rhythm is the airtight editing of Chris Lebenzon. Marking his ninth collaboration with Burton, Lebenzon demonstrates his usual swiftness in handling scenes of hushed dialogue and thundering action with equal confidence.

And the music! Mr. Sondheim’s soaring melodies make a subject as gruesome as violent revenge as appetizing as the titular, mouth-watering meal in Babette’s Feast. Time and again, I wanted to stand and applaud at the end of those dynamite musical numbers…and that would have been appropriate, had I been watching a live theatrical performance. Admittedly, this reviewer has never seen Sweeney Todd on the stage. Since the film version is so magnificently good, it is doubtful that any stage version could equal – muss less surpass – this inspired creation.

Before paying due attention to the actors, a few words about approach to casting musicals must be said. When preparing for a musical, the onus is on the director to cast non-singers who can act. There are those who disagree, foolishly insisting that singing non-actors can be coached (or perhaps coaxed) into giving serviceable performances. Invariably, the results produced by this approach prove disastrous. No singer can make it to the top of his or her profession without, at the very least, learning how to act. Otherwise, their renditions would lack any grounding in emotion to which the audience would naturally connect. That being said, Mr. Burton has made the wise choice to cast this film mainly with professionally trained actors who were coached to sing. What the performers lack in musical aptitude, they more than make up for in showmanship of the grandest kind. Less talented performers could be (and often have been) aided by the invisible hand of electronic sound manipulation in the post-production phase, but in the case that point is moot.

The younger players are terrifically good, and show only the subtlest hints of sentiment in their performances. Making her screen debut, Jayne Wisener amplifies a fragile beauty in the role of Johanna. Ed Sanders shines as Toby, the lad who yearns for her love. As well, the supporting players lend able foundation to the leads. Alan Rickman oozes chilly menace as Judge Turpin, a heartless arbiter who dispenses Draconian death sentences like punitive party favors. Talented character actor Timothy Spall scores a direct hit as the pastry-faced Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s loathsome watchdog. Shaking all remnants of his Borat character from memory, Sacha Baron Cohen delightfully hams it up in a brief but memorable fine-tuned performance. As the ambitious pie shop proprietor Mrs. Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter projects an acidly comic cynicism that simultaneously chills your spine and tickles your funny bone. She projects a darkly acerbic wit through her eyes and body language that recalls Isuzu Yamada’s best work under the direction of Kurosawa.

Finally, for recognition of superb acting, kudos must be paid to Johnny Depp. In carving out his portrayal of the amiable Benjamin Barker turned bloodthirsty murderer Sweeney Todd, Mr. Depp claims responsibility for the most absorbing performance in the history of film musicals. From the subtlest twitch of his eyes to his most sweeping gestures, Depp exudes a presence more commanding than he has ever projected on screen. It is a marrow-deep performance that, like Robert De Niro’s stunning turn in Raging Bull, procures sympathy for an unappealing character.

Perhaps Sweeney Todd can best be summed up by adducing The Searchers. Before John Wayne rides off from his brother’s burial to hunt down the killers, a mournful Olive Carey implores, “Don’t let the men waste their lives in vengeance!” Unlike John Wayne’s ruthless Confederate veteran in that film, Depp’s Todd awaits a fate crueler than drifting unwanted among the sunburned landscaped for the rest of one’s days.

Please find room on your awards season dinner plate for this vengeful confection. Though this is a crowded year for great movies, Sweeney Todd must not go unseen. This is a musical that dares to be different than its countless predecessors, and succeeds brilliantly for that very reason. To miss it would be ghastly.


John said...

JG, quite the review! Ebert and Roper eat your hearts out, there's a new kid in town. Very complete and informative. Good work! JH

David said...

It is almost a book I think. Very good writing, thank you. I have yet to see Sweeney Todd, but I always love to see the Burton and Depp duo. I have yet to be disappointed. I sometimes like to see musicals that are a bit different from the rest. An old school musical is very difficult for me to watch so I movies like this that can let me say I do like musicals (just good ones). Thanks for the thorough review. There are just so many movies I am not sure that I will ever catch up.