Saturday, December 29, 2007

A close shave: Sweeney Todd

Drops of blood intermingle with soot-coloured rain falling over a cozily computerized Victorian London in the opening moments of the latest product from director Tim Burton’s well-oiled brand of overly art directed middlebrow Goth. 

Soon the camera will fly through narrow streets of cartoon grime, an homage to Dickensian squalour minus any details that convey genuine disease or discomfort. Little critters will crawl in and out of cute-looking meat pies made by a fetching, boobilicious widow with beguiling wide eyes and carefully arranged rat’s nest hair. All of this is photographed in a manner characterized by odd contradictions, the images at once garish and drab, fussed over and neglected-looking. I guess this is what happens when Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is plucked from the shadowy magic of the theatre and juiced with a multi-million dollar movie budget: though shifted into an ostensibly more realistic, less artificial format, this morbid tale has become strangely bloodless.

Which isn’t to say that the movie isn’t ever any fun. Sondheim’s acclaimed musical concerns the a vengeful barber who assumes a habit of slitting the stubbled throats of Londoners while his pie baking companion feeds the ground-up remains to an unwittingly cannibalistic public. With such a grisly premise to usher through the adaptation process, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the story has lost much of its truly chilling resonance on its way to the big screen. Robbed of their darker attributes, a number of key scenes feel flat and overlong even though the story’s been compressed and many songs eliminated or trimmed down. Yet there are however a number of smaller pleasures to be found here that will likely delight holiday audiences.

The emphasis on creaking gears, springs, trap doors and other machinery in the barber’s busy little slaughterhouse makes for an enjoyably sly commentary on the tandem progress of efficiency and dehumanization in the post-industrial world. Once they get into the swing of things, Sweeney (Johnny Depp, once again with scissors in hand, sporting Burton’s obligatory pallor and a flamboyant grey streak to rival Susan Sontag) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, fashioned as a corseted Souixsie Souix) enjoy the fluidity of a well-maintained assembly line, with fresh victims sliding directly from the barber’s chair and down a hole into the dank basement where they are swiftly churned into hamburger and baked in the ever-roaring furnace. The whimsical flopping of corpses upon contact with the earthen floor is among the movie’s most striking visual gags.

Despite the general lack of strong voices to deliver Sondheim’s wildly intricate melodies –Depp in particular has trouble getting across Sweeney’s fiendish glee with his sour face and limited singing abilities, though his Bowie-esque quaver is kind of endearing– several members of the talented cast give amusing performances. As always, Bonham Carter, Burton’s all-too-devoted spouse, provides many of the highlights. She comes closest to balancing the necessary abstract or theatrical quality of the source material with the more intimate emotional nuances one can conjure for the movie cameras, and it helps that Lovett’s longing for Sweeney gives her some strong subtext to play with. Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a deliciously foppish counterfeit Italian and rival for Sweeney’s business, mustachioed and marvelously pretentious, also provides some nice moments, going for broke in his brief comic cameo and his blue satin pants.

Anyway, I can keep combing through my memories of Sweeney Todd for more nice things to say about it, but the bottom line is that the whole thing is just surprisingly forgettable, even as you’re watching it. There seems to be no desire to implicate the viewer in the building violence, no drive to forge a deeper investment in the deliciously grotesque underpinnings in Sondheim’s tale, only a superficial interest in its nifty vestiges. Burton, who if you ask me has yet to better Ed Wood, has apparently been dreaming of this project for the last 20 years or so. That’s an awfully long time to go without ever asking yourself what the thing is really all about.

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