Monday, February 18, 2008

Attend the Tale...

Our current hometown has a surprisingly laudable array of musical talent, and we went recently to our pizza-and-beer joint to see one. Though he proved a very skilled guitarist with a definite songwriting talent, I couldn't help reflecting on the phenomenon of young man's music being performed by a man rapidly ceasing to be young. What a burden is the blessing of youthful talent, coupled as it is with an obligation to mature and refine in artistry, particularly when one's genre itself tends to impede maturity and refinement.

These reflection, as it happens, apply almost perfectly to Tim Burton's new film adaptation of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's Broadway opera of misanthropy, manslaughter and cannibalism. The first thing to understand about Sweeney is that, despite its Broadway provenance and its lurid subject matter, it punches above its weight as a serious work, one good enough to support a variety of interpretations in performance. Many people assert that it qualifies as an opera, meaning I suppose that one can enjoy this shabby little shocker while maintaining full highbrow cred. Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett are surprisingly sympathetic and funny as they descend to the nadir of human villity; the work has a decently classical tragic inevitability and is a serious portrayal of cruelty and vengeance; and the music sometimes achieves real power. A good benchmark interpretation with excellent performances by the two leads is this one. The musical has genuine potential for serious filmmaking and a director as peculiar and creative as Burton might have made it soar.

Alas, he doesn't. A lot of Burton's creativity seems to have frozen into mannerism, and in Sweeney he revels far too exclusively in the tale's ghoulish and downright disgusting aspects, as the opening credits' extended shot of CGI blood flow attests. I couldn't help thinking that this is a Sweeney for teenagers, not adults, for an audience eager to snigger at Londoners wolfing down their fellow man, with a heavy dose of weird for weird's sake (attested by the meaningless and distracting skunk streak in Johnny Depp's hair). Worse still, Burton's preoccupation with not flinching from the story's brutality sometimes overwhelms the musical's best moments of black humor.

The movie's puerile tendencies show up most strongly in the casting. When I first saw the cast list, I couldn't believe that Burton chose Pretty-Boy Depp as Sweeney over the marvellously villainous Alan Rickman (who is by far the best reason to watch the Harry Potter movies). Rickman is plenty good as the sadistic Judge Turpin, but the role is just too small for him, and I greatly regret that his potential as Sweeney must be forever consigned to my imagination. And Depp is simply too light for the role, and too young. Logically, he's not really old enough to have a 16-year-old daughter, and dramatically he just isn't equal to the character's sad, bitter, vengeful Weltschmerz. Again, a young man's talent in an old man's art. And not as bad, but again distracting, is the pointlessly over-the-top casting of Sacha Baren Cohen (Borat) as Pirelli; buffo though he be, Pirelli is eventually revealed as yet another sadist, but Cohen remains a buffoon.

More positively, Helena Bonham Carter, whom I usually loathe, was surprisingly decent and sympathetic as Mrs. Lovett. I especially enjoyed her number By the Sea, her sad fantasy of bourgeois oceanside Cockney happiness with a cannibal accomplice at her side. Timothy Spall (another Harry Potter regular, the rat guy) was an excellent choice for Beadle Bamford. And the pacing in the drama's final scenes is excellent, a substantial improvement in clarity over the stage version I've seen, as the ghastly events speed towards their inevitably tragic end. Don't get me wrong; the film was absolutely a diverting way to spend a couple hours.

Perhaps the oddest of Burton's modifications to the musical was his choice to eliminate the choruses that open, close and interject in the drama. Given the director's facility with surrealism, I would have thought that choruses offered plenty of potential for spectacle, as well as some useful control of the film's pacing. I was surprised how much I missed them, especially at the end. Choral strophes and antistrophes can mould an audience's response to tragedy, giving a more meaningful shape to a series of unfortunate events, not to mention giving the audience a tune to whistle on its way out of the theater, and this work turned out to suffer noticeably from their omission. I also find it telling that another of the drama's classically tragic touches (can't be more specific without a spoiler here) was also eliminated. This film version of Sweeney Todd is unfortunately little interested in tragedy, but only in ghoulish spectacle. At the latter, it is a smashing success.

P.S. Yes, I too am now contemplating Odious' finger. But Mrs. P. and I have a duet to learn: