Monday, December 31, 2007

The Ballad of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd

You know how the New York Times will have two different critics review a show like Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake --Theatre Guy reviews it as theatre and Dance Girl reviews it as dance? Well, I had so many different responses to Sweeney Todd, I'm going to have to do the same thing.

THEATRE CRITIC REVIEW: This was never going to be faithful to the Broadway show, but there was every chance it could have been a faithful transfer of the style of the show, if not the content. It can be done. (Rent the DVD of the musical version of The Producers and see if I'm wrong.) But it wasn't done here. What's missing? "Mischief! Mischief! Mischief!" Not only a quote but a whole level of playfulness and contrast that's nowhere to be found. In its place? Body parts! White makeup! Miss Havisham gowns with cleavage!

Prime example: there's no Sweeney laughter during "A Little Priest," and unless my memory fails me there's not even the "Who gets eaten and who gets to eat" stanza, which is the capper to a whole bunch of jokes that are also cut down in the interests of making this movie as one-note as possible. The one playful thing that remains ("By The Sea") ends up being a dream sequence in which the love object (Todd) refuses to participate, and the obvious only reason it's there is to give Helena Bonham Carter more screen time.

And she's the biggest problem. Beyond the fact that nobody can really sing, which is why the music overpowers the vocals and all the good lyrics get lost beneath the strings, if it's one thing Mrs. Lovett isn't, it's a Kabuki-faced Goth-princess live-action version of Corpse Bride. She's alive in a way that Todd isn't, and she constantly offers him a choice he refuses to take. A choice that makes no sense at all when she's the same kind of weirdo he is.

But this film is not interested in choices, or contrast, which is why there's no "Kiss Me!" and no chorus, no tooth-pulling and (again, if memory serves) no echo of the Johanna theme when the Beggar Woman gets killed, and why the Beggar Woman's part and "A Little Priest" are cut to shreds, with a much blunter knife than Todd's. The film is only interested in doing one thing, and doing it repeatedly, and with little relief: being ghoulish, and telling you that life is hell.

All of which is just quibbling. The only valid question about a filmed version of a theatre piece is: does it do the original work justice? And the answer here is, hell no.

SNARKY THEATRE CRITIC'S REVIEW: Thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend's girlfriend, I was able to get a copy of the lyrics of one of the songs that was cut from Tim Burton's film of Sweeney Todd. It's the opening ballad, which was originally sung by Heath Ledger as a character named Jaggers (nice echo to Great Expectations there, Tim). Here it is in its entirety:

Attend the film of Sweeney Todd.
The blood’s knee-deep and the acting odd.
The singing’s mostly an awful joke
And Depp can do nothing but mutter and croak.
His voice deserves a firing squad
In Sweeney Todd.
(I liked him better in Jump Street.)

Tim Burton must have smoked some weed.
He gave his girlfriend the female lead.
If Bonham-Carter could act a stitch
She might not come off as a self-centered bitch
Who thinks her brains are in her bod
In Sweeney Todd.
(Her Lovett’s strictly from Teat Street.)

Christmas? Open wide, Sweeney!
Shoot for Oscar’s prize.
Money trumps
The word of chumps
Who criticize.

Next to this silly travesty
Johnny One-Note's a symphony.
Nothing these jerks
Does can create a
Hint of what works
In the theatah.

The film’s a bloodbath, as it stands --
It’s Edward Shaving-Razor-Hands.
But fans of Sondheim are out of luck
His show has been butchered and now it’s teh suck .
I hope he made a decent buck
For Sweeney
For Sweeney Todd -
The movie straight out of Pain

FILM CRITIC'S REVIEW: This was never going to be faithful to the Broadway show, and there's no reason it should be. What works on the stage does not work on film (rent the DVD of the musical version of The Producers and see if I'm wrong). Movies are more intimate, which is why Alfred Drake gets replaced by Howard Keel, Ethel Merman never gets to film Annie Oakley, and nobody wants to see Marilyn Monroe in the stage version of Seven-Year Itch. So I had no problem with the singing or the way the music was handled, although I agree with Theatre Critic Matthew that the mix was so orchestra-heavy that the lyrics got lost. Which in a Broadway show would be death, but in a film, music is mood rather than information, and in this film, mood is everything. The only well-lit scenes are either flashbacks or dream sequences; the only color other than red is the gold that lights the past, or the gold from the baking-oven fire that lights the past's final appearance in the present. Everything else is dark and gruesome, in the original sense of the word grue (to shudder with fear). I just wish there was more actual shuddering.

Why no shuddering? Helena Bonham Carter. She may get most of the laughs with her two-peas-in-a-pod performance, but Theatre Critic Matthew is exactly right: no contrast equals no real sense of horror. And this is designed to be a horror movie. The blood is nowhere near as all-pervasive as some critics would lead you to believe (I thought it was almost tasteful, and God knows the killings had more variety than Bonham-Carter's shall we say bloodless performance), and cutting everything that's not horrible means there's no usual for the unusual to invade. When both your leads look like something Burke & Hare dug up, you have to believe that the entire city of London is brain-damaged not to see that asking one of them for a shave or another one for a meal involves murder and cannibalism.

All of which is just quibbling. The only valid question about a filmed version of a play is: does it work on its own as a film? And the answer here is, hell yes.

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