Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Attend the Tale

The short version. So, so, so, pleased.

The long version. Sweeney Todd is easily one of my favorite 50 films ever and probably makes the top 25. Furthermore, I suspect that after more viewings (which will have to wait for DVD), it’ll be in the top ten. I was giddily, remarkably thrilled at how much they got right here, and, even more so, by how much they, not improved upon the stage version, but used the medium of film and didn’t try to “film the play.”

To get the most common complaint out of the way first, no, the singing was not Broadway-caliber. And yet this made it seem more filmlike somehow. After all, when we see a Broadway musical, we expect to hear a person sing, to see and hear a flesh and blood human being open their throats and make beautiful noise. But in a film, especially a quietly spooky thriller like this one, we are accustomed to much more carefully modulated, orchestrated sound, with footsteps and doors closing and the rustle of clothes all given weight in the soundtrack. And in that sonic landscape, the more natural, speech-like singing employed by most of the actors fits better. This is not to say that the songs were spoken; on the contrary, Sondheim’s glorious melodies were heard in full flower, with each note landing and each melody sketched clearly and cleanly. But if the sung melodies in the play as normally done are painted in glorious full color, with bright, bold brushstokes, then the sung melodies here were painted in beautiful, clean, minimalist charcoals. Even such operatic pieces as “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” were sung much more sweetly and simply, and less gloriously, than we are accustomed to. And the beauty of Sondheim’s melodies is that that approach works so well. These songs still sung, while at the same time telling the story in the way it needed to be told for this incarnation.

Burton and screenwriter Logan’s directorial and textual choices were all very well-considered. Losing the Ballad hurt in one sense, but I could easily see how it simply wouldn’t have fit in this context. And, if Sondheim has taught us anything, it’s that the form must work closely with the material. And that material did work wonderfully as pure music, scrubbed not just of the lyrics but the primary melody as well. Those opening credits set the scene beautifully, introducing the look and sound of the film.

I also loved the decision to cast Johanna, Anthony, and Tobias so young. For the first time, Anthony’s willful naivete and simple and pure nature made sense – he’s not some seasoned sailor who should know better, he’s an idealistic, young teen who has not yet had that idealism beat out of him. Similarly, Johanna comes across as much more believable in this incarnation, her youth serving to make her trusting of Anthony more natural. It may seem blasphemous, but her “Green Finch” was the most affecting I’ve ever heard – precisely because of her youth. And an actual ten-year old Toby is so remarkably affecting, and the horrors he’s subjected to so much more acute. “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” has never been more heartbreaking.

Johnny Depp as Sweeney was a revelation – the way he internalized that rage and lust for revenge, only briefly letting it vent made the character very menacing and imposing. And his singing was very effective, especially the way he was able to embrace the accent more while singing, given the simpler timbre in his voice. And, while I know many have slammed Bonham Carter for her admittedly thin voice, she sings with wonderful intonation and diction, and very much in character. Her Lovett, willing to stoop as low as Sweeney to gain his trust and love, is a different Lovett than we are used to, much more naturalistic and open, and I found her journey to be especially heartbreaking here.

As for the gore: deliciously done. A hard “R” Sweeney, with blood flowing and spraying and dripping, is something new, and it served the dark take on the material wonderfully. But even more clever was the way Burton had his Todd dumping the bodies head first down into the basement, so that we could see all that literal dead meat slam and slump onto the concrete floor, in grisly and gruesome fashion. The deaths really hammered home the immorality at play here and didn’t allow the icky fun of the meat pie conceit to let us forget how horrible Todd really is.

Lastly, this was a beautiful film, all smoky, grim grays, with the odd bursts of color (the blood, the brilliant blue of Pirelli’s suit) popping off the screen. But most importantly is that in every way it is a film, and a dark, beautiful, eerie, and unrelenting one. It’s a showcase for Sondheim any Sondheim fan should be proud to have representing the man to the larger pop cultural world.

Until Whenever

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