Todd visually awing, dreary
January 15, 2008 —
It is difficult to compare a film musical to its stage counterpart. There is something about theater that makes suspension of disbelief easier when it comes to people randomly breaking out in song. I personally feel it is often the singing itself. In film, however, this suspension seems more difficult to attain, so when it is, as in Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it makes for an exhilarating experience.
The film is about a man formally named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), who, after being imprisoned on false charges for more than 14 years, returns to London as Sweeney Todd. As Barker, he had ran a successful barber business and had a beautiful wife, but a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) envies Barker and gets him wrongfully imprisoned in an attempt to get his wife. Todd returns seeking revenge and finds an unsuccessful meat-pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) below his old home. The two develop a plan to rid London of all those vile, Todd hoping it will lead Turpin to him.
Burton remains quite loyal to his source material (the film nearly an opera), but visually turns it into his own, dark creation. Burton seems the perfect match for Todd, as the film is nearly relentless in its dreary atmosphere and mood. Here it is not so much the cinematography that should be complemented, but the visual tone and texture of the film, which Burton seems aware of as he manages laughs based on a drastic visual change during one of Lovett's songs.
Then there is the unedited (though some songs were cut) music of Stephen Sondheim, which manages to emote everything from despair to sorrow to longing to joy (albeit a very creepy sort of joy). Knowing that Sondheim is fully capable of quality music, my concern lied more in how Burton would edit it and whether or not Depp and company could successfully sing it. After Burton proved himself, it was left up to the actors to do so, which they did so quickly. What makes the actors' vocals all the more successful, to me, was that none of them were particularly amazing singers. They were quite good, but what made it work so well was that they became their characters. The imperfection of their voices only seemed to reinforce the imperfection of the world they were present in.
Where does the suspension of disbelief fit in with all of this, however? It begins right off the bat during the opening credits. A booming opening orchestra number made it clear that this was a movie in which music would play as big of a role as anything else, and the credits were delivered while claymation played out the horror that the film would entail, blood, guts, rats and meat-pies. Visually, this surreal opening compliments the unreal texture that the film maintains, and the surreal nature of its imaginary and flashback moments. Plus, the songs are played out in this strange reality as much as not, which allows the characters to break out into song randomly with ease.
Still, as breathtaking as it was, I am not certain that it is one I want to watch again and again. I, and the rest of the audience, laughed randomly throughout (Sacha Baron Cohen delivers as an amusing caricature that impressively becomes quite real). Make no mistake, however, Todd is, ultimately, a very dark and depressing tale, and Burton spares no expense on the amount of blood spilt when the time comes. So, heed my warning if you have a light stomach or are in a particularly morose mood, but if you want to see a very different sort of musical done right on the screen, Sweeney Todd is definitely for you.