Posted by: Brian Hibbs on December 23, 2007
The good thing about Tim Burton’s SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is that it really works remarkably as a film — I went in with a fair deal of trepidation over the changes I knew were coming, but virtually all of them worked pretty darn well.
The cuts to the libretto that were made, were overall, pretty good — I didn’t really know if it could survive removing the (various) “Ballad(s) of Sweeney Todd”, but, for the most part one didn’t miss them. And while a couple of pieces were missed (I was sort of looking forward to the four-part disharmony of “Kiss Me/Ladies in Their Sensitivities”), it kicked the momentum of the story dramatically forward. I’m glad, of course, that Judge Turpin’s “Johanna” (“Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa”) was cut, because that’s pretty much the one song even in the full version that I can live without. Other than that, most of the cuts were in Act II, with the “Wigmaker Sequence” and “The Letter” and “Parlor Songs” all excised completely.
Several other songs were pretty dramatically truncated — “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” was maybe half of its normal length, “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” seemed chopped down, and “The Contest” was as short as it could be (the original original version goes on and on and on, featuring BOTH a shaving contest, AND a tooth-pulling one, too!). “God That’s Good” cut out all of the general public embracing the pies, as well as all of the business of bringing in the chair and “…I have another friend!” (Sweeney builds his own in this version, in songless montage), but again, they mostly got their points across fairly well. But the cut in length that probably bothered me the most was to “A Little Priest” which seemed like about 2/3rds its normal length, and THAT just seems wrong to me to cut by even a single bar.
But one things that the cuts do is basically remove all of the humor from the play entirely. To me, one of the greatest things about SWEENEY is that, yes, it is a astonishingly dark Shakespearean-level tragedy, steeped in blood and horror and madness, but it is also laugh-out-loud, slap-your-knee hysterical in places. Which, I think, is eminently necessary because murder and meat pies needs some levity to not have it be desperately bleak. But in this version, a lot of the jokes are either cut, or delivered so seriously as to dull them and render them dark, not funny.
The singing itself is pretty Eh — everyone can carry a tune alright, but most of the actors (being actors and not singers) don’t have enough depth or range in their voices to carry it off. When Depp first started singing, I went “Oh god, this is going to be a rough ride”, but by the second time I started to throw away my preconception of the deep strong voice needed for the role because Depp’s *acting* is so strong and nuanced.
Bonham-Carter, on the other hand, wow, she can’t sing at all, sounding far too weak and whispery and “little girly” to really carry it off at all. And while Depp did hid best portrayal of Todd, Bonham-Carter seemed to me as if she was playing… well, Bonham-Carter for the most part, and I didn’t get any real sense of Mrs. Lovett, as opposed to girl-who-looks-physically-right-playing-against-Depp-as-Romantic-Leads. I thought Bonham-Carter’s line-readings were mostly wrong, and that she just rushed through too many of the proper shadings in “Worst Pies in London” or “A Little Priest”. SHe’s also (well, everyone is, really, with the sole exception of Toby) something like 10 years too young for the role. Interestingly, I thought on the few occasions when she went down an octave or two, it fit the songs and character much better, and she sounded as if she had a fuller, rounder voice. Her acting was fine though.
The orchestration was really excellent, with a much much larger orchestra than usually performs SWEENEY, though there’s certainly times it swells way up to compensate for the less-than-professional singing. There’s a couple of places where I swore I could also hear cuts between different takes as they tried to match Depp and Bonham-Carter up (I’ve read that they were in different studios to record and different times, and, I think there are 1-2 places where it seems a little obvious. There’s a pretty glaring cut where Sascha Baron Cohen’s Pirelli does that high note, and it didn’t sound at all like his own voice (sounded like a woman’s voice, honestly)
Cohen was really great as Pirelli (as I think we all expected him to be), and his singing was probably stronger than Depp’s, but I think it was Alan Rickman’s singing voice that surprised me the most for being stronger than I would expect for an actor-not-singer. His duet with Depp on “Pretty Women” is really very nice.
All of the kids were adequate, I guess — the girl playing Johanna didn’t seem to have any of the gothic haunted madness that I want to see in the character (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird” seemed more like “I like birds” than “Oh god, I’m trapped in this cage and I NEED TO GET OUT!”, the latter being the way I like), and the boy playing Anthony seemed less than a sailor who has “sailed the seas, and seen its wonders”, then someone who still had to finish their senior year in high school, but both sung well enough, and, anyway, their parts were basically shortened enough so that it didn’t matter much either way. The one bit I did like was the physical staging of Johanna’s near-miss at the end worked a lot better than it has in any staged version I’ve seen, but Anthony sort of just disappears about 10 minutes before the end of the movie and we never see him again.
Having an actual child play Toby is, I suppose, logical, but I still prefer the slightly-retarded-young-man model ala Broadway, because I think his youth really works against “Not While I’m Around” in a pretty big fashion, and it completely blows the humor of “Gentlemen, you’re about to see something that rose from the dead. (woman’s gasp of impropriety) On the top of my head!” when it’s a 10-year old delivering the line. I also had a much harder time with Toby’s finale (with 90% of it, probably wisely, being excised, really) with him being a kid, and there was a brand new bit of business involving Gin that I thought just didn’t work at all either.
But even with all of my griping about the weak singing, and the casting, this still worked very very well as a movie — without the humor, it’s just a pretty terrifying thrill ride, probably darker than anything Burton has ever done before, and it zips along well as a film. Even Tzipora, who usually rolls her eyes at my love of Sweeney, and who hasn’t seen it all the way through except for once 15-ish years ago on a lousy quality video cassette, was well entertained walking out of the theater, saying she enjoyed it. But she, like I, sort of has a hard time picture it doing well at the box office — Depp fans who know him from commercial-ish stuff like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN probably won’t respond well to the gore and darkness of this; it’s big-time NOT a movie that you walk-out of thinking “Merry Christmas!!”; and the studio has been, I think, both under-promoting it, as well as trying to cut trailers that underplay the fact it is a musical.
Overall, I liked it to at least call it GOOD, and maybe even VERY GOOD, but I also think the worst cut was losing its sense of humor. Having the cast all rise from the dead at the end to sing the “Ballad(s)” helped I think relieve some of the unrelenting darkness of the play that ending the movie on an image of the most blood-drenched version of The Pieta that you’ve ever seen just doesn’t do. No, that was an arresting, disturbing image to end a powerfully made movie, but I want to see all of the corpses get up at that point and remind me that “To seek revenge may lead to hell/ but everyone does it and seldom as well”; somehow that makes it easier to bear.
Parenthetically, the single weirdest thing about the film was that before it started (but after the trailers, and the “Silence is Golden”, and the THX logo) there was this 5-ish minute long thing that sort of just showed clip after clip of previous Burton/Depp collaborations. It didn’t have a voice over, or a narrative and it went back and forth from film to film with no real rhyme or reason that I could see, and it felt like someone somewhere was trying to say “you liked these other films, please please don’t walk out of this one”. Strangest god-damn thing I’ve ever seen before a film in my life, and I honestly don’t get it.
Either way, it’s good, go see it — then rent the DVD of the stage play (or, better still, go see the touring stage company) to compare.
What did YOU think?