21 December 2007

Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Genre: Musical / Morality Play

It was obvious from the very start of this project that it would take a tremendous amount of careful effort for Mr. Burton & Co. to finely winnow down Mr. Sondheim's classic dark drama from its more original sprawling length to a format more suitable for the screen, one less encompassing, less for a live audience, yet still equally as powerful, or dynamic. Songs would obviously have to be trimmed, if not hedged altogether; dialogue bundled; characters redirected; and even blocking smartly reshaped, to accommodate the comparatively limited window that is the frame (comparatively with the open stage). In short, the whole thing was to be chopped, condensed, as best as its varyingly shaped pieces could, to become a faster, tighter Sweeney Todd - o , wait: that's actually not a disastrous enterprise at all, but rather an extremely exciting venture: a faster, tighter Sweeney...hmmm. It would mean then more quickly delivered punches, more severely reverberating cadences, and just generally a more sharply rendered story; concisely, a probably would-be improvement on its staged blueprint. After all, the other effects of the change of medium could only be immensely beneficial (i. e., the huge, unlimited structures and locations, the possibility of smooth, unsequestered scenes thanks to editing, and the potential color-tinting variations of post-production, contemporary cinematography).
Such were my thoughts as I sat in the theater last night before the premiere, midnight showing of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and as I sat and thought I could only become more excited by the possibilities of it. Would it be beautiful? Would it be sharp? Would it be as good as it could be? And, when with the intoning gothic chords it finally began with a thrill I thought that, indeed, it may be.
Yet, I began to worry as the opening credits animation-sequence grew on, with its sickeningly overripe reddish hue whose texture existed somewhere among melted latex, candle wax, and blood. That was the first sign; the almost comically pop-culturated blood ominous indeed, for how seriously then could the film treat its most basic principles, its very groundwork, in morality? I hoped things would change and, as the animation fell away and Mr. Depp entered the frame, albeit behind a boy who looked more the gaunt, heroine-chic Dior model from Scandinavia than the innocently amorous sailor - but that's another story - I did my best to let the creeping suspicions of failure fall away. "No chorus?" No chorus - hmm, there was no hauntingly singing chorus to introduce him and his story to the audience, no moralizing catalyst by contrast and omniscience but we, the audience ourselves - bold decision, Mr. Burton. Let it be then and, his song finished, I was quickly torn away through the varyingly black streets of Todd's pit London, with hardly a second's hold to really ingest it all, the squalor and the picture-book scenes. The camera instead rode heavily on him, Mr. Depp, intensely close and scrutinizing - hmm, another odd choice: why decontextualize, especially when Mr. Todd is so emphatically a product of his environs; why alienate me, the audience, so so strongly from perspective, especially when we are now the moral adjudicants? Well, push on: mm, more flat grumbling from Mr. Depp but then, ah, a light: Ms. Bonham Carter, floured out and rolling quite deftly in her own private shoppe. It was clear, from her entrance, that this film could bear fruit after all. Undespairing, I settled in and listened.
What I found ensuing over the next forty minutes was much of the same: sparse, indelicate introductions and establishments, dissevering perspectives, and the wicked balm of Ms. Carter's Mrs. Lovett at pains to smooth it all. It was not at all the Sweeney Todd I had so hoped it would be. And I wondered, why wasn't it working? Yes, there was all I mentioned contributing to the shortcoming, and so, all right, Mr. Burton & Co. found their self-appointed task of inexiguous, concise adaption (at least in the first act) a taller order than they would muster; but there was something deeper turning wrong. And then I recognized it, so clearly that it nearly knocked me over: the performances, they were, none of them (except for Mrs. Lovett), anywhere near as crisp, as sharp, as raw as they should have been. Where they should have been steaming hatred, there was only a simmering seed; where a violent call to reaction, only a crusty obligation to deed; and, where a perfervid longing to break free, only a simpering, whimpering indolence to go. Mr. Depp's, whom I much otherwise admire, Mr. Todd was flat, undynamic, and distant. Mr. Rickman's and his Stupin's ward, played by Ms. Jayne Wisener, were much the same. And Mr. Baron Cohen's Sr. Pirelli, though indeed comedic, lacked a similar lustre. Mr. Spall seemed to be the only actor who really tried to add to his character and three-dimensionalize him from the page and from the otherwise stagnant stew of his castmates, but his efforts' product felt too caricatured to be genuine. Again, only Mrs. Lovett really stood out as a character of significant complexity and depth. But why? Why?
I considered the question seriously and in doing so I was forced to go back and reconsider, not only my opinion of the performances, but also and moreover my entire starting point for opining in general. This is a morality play, it was clear, and perhaps I had therefore approached the thing all wrong. I had been looking for plot prominence, character depth, and audience integration, but perhaps i was entirely misguided thus, way off and utterly daft to do so. Could these characters have been meant to be so flat, undynamic, and distant, so singularly motivated and two-dimensional on purpose? Could there be a finer, more complex innerworking here than I had previously considered or even dreamt of realizing? And, as the aforementioned forty-minute introductory period tapered off into the rest of the film, I was pushed deeper into my thoughts, because all of a sudden, and very surprisingly to me, everything just clicked. I wasn't sure whether it was because the songs had gotten better or I had learned to disregard those aspects of the film that I had previously conceived as faults; but truly everything just fell exactly into place. Tempo was perfect, balance ideal, plotline deepening; it was all really moving, even humming merrily along like clockworks, to an until-then unseen drummer (for I had the distinct feeling that that abstract master had always been there, the course of flow hadn't changed, I just hadn't found its font yet). I was astounded. And it hit me, far more strongly than my earlier recognition, this was a morality play. Its breed and nature exist entirely outside of the world of now traditional film as something older, almost archetypical, and certainly governed by its own set of rules. Characters did not have to be rounded, plotlines did not have to be of a certain depth; in this type of play it could make perfect and absolute sense to be at haste in getting over the mere introductory formalities, because they and the details of the plotline are so subordinate to the being and the details of the moral or conceit they exemplify. And at once what I had initially seen as the crumbled, poorly effected structures of the early portion of the film took on new life, as naught but the rickety unembellished framework jogging into play, accomplishing everything it needed to, cleanly and simply. And, as I pared down my interpretations of the characters, I also recognized that the reason why Mrs. Lovett (at her basic, on-the-page form) had stood out from the rest for me is because her sticking point and singular motivation is by its nature necessarily more "complex" (as the word is ordinarily considered); active emotion and conscience manifest her, as she was designed to be the only player who has inklings of self-awareness about her, as she is the sage, the augur, the portent. It is through her that the true moral grappling is worked and exemplified, and so she is the keystone of the entire piece. I fell back in my seat and absorbed it all.
The film had been completely beguiling, and I was confounded by how a film that seemed to be so lacking in so many ways could pick itself up and turn itself around, almost entirely reoriented in my mind, to become so lucid and full and hard-hitting. Of course, it was unequivocal how visually beautiful it had been. Colleen Atwood is endlessly talented at her craft, and her costumes meld perfectly into the alternately bright and dusky hues of the art direction and production design. Mr. Sondheim's songs were also enchanting, and so the audial part of the film was too decidedly lovely. Yet, the meat of it...so tricky. Of course, praise again to Ms. Bonham Carter and to her director husband, Mr. Burton, who so cleverly manipulated my mind into this half-in-awe, half-in-question state; but my final grade? What to do? For, not all the shortcomings of my early review did improve. The cinematography especially remained an erratic con for the film; so much better could have been done with wider shots, fewer tight close-up, and more parallel, flatter (if you will) angles. But what of the rest? I confess, I have never before deliberated so headily on the exactitudes of my grade for a film. Usually it is very apparent to me before I even begin to write my review where (within at least a plus or a minus) my grade will be. Yet, here the range was so wide that I still, even now, am unsure of where I've arrived, for despite its apparent myriad and variable flaws or inexiguities I cannot think of Sweeney Todd other than by majority greatness. Congratulations, Mr. Burton & Co.; I keep my doubts but I just cannot condemn you.

Grade: A-

O, and as for the photo, I'm saving myself for a shot of Mr. Todd and Mrs. Lovett "By the Sea," which was just brilliant.

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