ZERO :: the Fool (annwyd) wrote,
ZERO :: the Fool
annwyd

Everybody shaves so there should be plenty of flavors.

Sweeney Todd is an absolutely brilliant, amazing, inspired movie. I have mixed feelings about it.

Arguably every complaint I have about it can be boiled down to, "It was more different from the musical than I could ever have imagined." I find myself wishing that I had a way of seeing it on its own merits, distinct from my adoration of the original musical. Because, like I said? Amazing.

The original Sondheim musical is a bloody morality play about societal and personal corruption, systemic dehumanization, our poisonous fetishization of innocence, and the nature of evil. The Tim Burton movie is a tragedy about the inescapability of the past and the destruction of innocence.

The movie pulls this off gorgeously, to be sure. But the fact remains: Sweeney Todd was not meant to be a sad tale of innocence lost. It works, but it doesn't work as well as the original. So don't go in there expecting the kind of gripping, convoluted, perfect depth that the stage musical has.

There are two particular failings of note as a result of this theme shift:
* Mrs. Lovett. In the musical, she's a crucial part of the theme. She's the devil-figure, an embodiment of unchecked human greed as encouraged by society (my inner Gates would like to note RARR CAPITALIST SCUM. He'd like the original musical, it's very brutal to capitalism). That theme is the core of the musical--after all, the story is literally about man eating man and the system that encourages it. Despite the story being the same, the movie largely absents this theme. Mrs. Lovett's still an awesome character (to a large degree thanks to Helena Bonham-Carter; more on that later), but there doesn't seem much point to her in the overall theme. If you squint, I guess you could say that she represents the way Todd can never replace Lucy, but it just doesn't work as well as her original purpose.
* Anthony and Johanna's story. They cut quite a lot of it, which is understandable considering that it's a side story to the main plot. But its original thematic purpose is to actually show, in slow motion, the breakdown of the innocence we prize so much. In the movie, it's changed to represent the simple loss of innocence. Which, in the original show, was Toby's purpose, but I digress. Among other things, they cut most of Anthony and Johanna's few scenes together ("Ah, Miss," "Kiss Me," and most of their interaction in the final sequence). They also completely changed the way time in Fogg's Asylum altered Johanna. In the original, she emerges slightly deranged; in this, she's merely haunted and shaken. Most importantly: nobody shoots Mr. Fogg, and certainly not the person who did in the original. This was a huge deal to me, but then, at that point, I was still expecting them to try to stick to the themes, and that moment is the summation of the "innocence is not so great" theme. To sum up: their love story is still beautiful on account of the gorgeous music and the great direction/setting, but it's much shallower and less obviously a part of the rest of the show.

Considering that Sondheim thoroughly approved the changes, this may seem odd. From reading the Meryl Secrest biography, though, I know that he tends to slip his deepest themes in subconsciously rather than deliberately (with the almost certain exception of Sunday in the Park with George; hello, Pulitzer). So in some ways he was probably less bothered by these changes than his fans were going to be.

Some other changes I didn't care for, although these had less to do with the thematic changes:
* They cut out most of the Beggar Woman's scenes. Considering her eventual importance to the plot? Very bad idea. In the original, the audience generally has figured out who she is by the time of her death. In this, it's harder. I understand why they did it--her lines are squicky as hell--but I don't think it was the right choice. They at least needed to keep some of her part in "No Place Like London," to establish early on that she seems to recognize Todd. I'm kind of surprised at this, actually. I know they needed to trim running time, and I approve of some of the changes made to do so, but this one was really a bad idea. Hell, she'd even have helped introduce and bolster the new themes if they'd simply changed her mood to be less disgusting and despoiled and more broken and pathetic.
* The loss of the Ballad. Now, I understood why they cut it from the opening and the interludes between scenes: a) they needed to reduce running time and b) it would interfere with both the pacing and the atmosphere. By the end of the movie, as disappointed as I'd been, I was resigned to this and accepted it. But I expected it to be there in the finale, and its absence made me very sad. For the themes of the movie, though, the ending was perfect, and the cutting of the Ballad made perfect sense, considering it had the most blatant explanations of the themes of the play.
* The cutting of the scene where Anthony buys Johanna a bird. Considering that it, like most of the Anthony/Johanna plot, does a brilliant job of encapsulating the fetishization-of-innocence theme, it's not surprising that it was cut. But damn, I love that creepy scene.

There was one good side to the thematic changes: they drastically cut the rampant subtextual misogyny that plagues the original, wherein women represent on the one hand the grossly fetishized "innocence" that drives men to commit terrible acts, and on the other hand, in the form of Mrs. Lovett, evil itself.

So that stuff explains the less positive of my mixed feelings. On to the things that made it such a fantastic movie.

The greatest strength of the movie can be summed up in two words: the cast. Everyone was incredible. I expected Depp to be very good indeed. I was wrong. He was excellent, he was brilliant, he was perfect. My father says he deserves an Oscar. I am inclined to agree. There's really nothing more I can say about his performance; words don't really do him justice. By the way? He sure as hell can sing. No, not on the kind of Broadway level you'd expect if this were a stage musical, but it's a movie musical, and he has a very pleasant voice.

As much as I love Helena Bonham-Carter, I was expecting her to be not so good. The fact is, most of the original cast of the musical was good, but not stunning or especially memorable. The exception was Angela Lansbury. Thing is, Bonham-Carter knew she couldn't live up to Lansbury. She didn't even try. She turned the character around, made her not just darkly mothering and ruthlessly profiteering, but also sexy, fragile, and just a bit crazy. I was skeptical of the reviews saying she reinvented the character, but it's true. Her voice, as I feared, is thin and weak, but she doesn't push it, and her acting makes up for her failings as a singer.

The rest of the actors fade beside those two, but they were all terrific. Alan Rickman did his usual villain stint, but it was just what was needed for the Judge, along with just the right amount of creepy corruption (there's a new scene he has with Anthony that's great). He doesn't sing much, but when he does, it's passable. Timothy Spall as the Beadle, also awesome. I'd say he's one of the few people who plays his character pretty much exactly as he was intended in the musical, and boy does he ever pull it off.

Anthony, Johanna, and Tobias are less distinctive (except that I continually found myself vaguely disturbed and turned on by how feminine Anthony looked), but they do right by their (reduced, in the case of the first two) roles. Toby is younger than he's usually played on stage, but it works out just fine.

And yes, Sacha Baron-Cohen is there. They cut some of Pirelli's time (which I didn't mind, as I never much cared for "The Contest," which got chopped in half), but he's terrific and colorful in what he does have.

The direction and the scenery are darkly, slickly, horribly beautiful. I wanted to make about a million icons (as soon as there's a screener floating around the internets, I'm downloading it and doing just that). At times early on the lighting was almost too dark to properly make things out, but I adjusted to that. Burton and the rest of the production team are happy to play with the advantages offered by the medium of film: "Epiphany," for instance, has much more motion than would be possible in a stage production.

As the (instrumental version of) Ballad plays over the opening credits, they show an image that's so brilliantly emblematic of the original musical's themes that I wonder why they used it: a bright stream of blood flowing into a great, unspecified machine, being churned among its gears, and finally flowing out to the sewers. I got very excited when I saw that (which only added to my letdown later).

One of the complaints I see in the reviews is that Burton slimmed down on the humor. This is utterly ridiculous; the movie is hilarious. Especially in the first act, the humor tends to be fairly dark and more subtle than most of that in the original musical, but it's there. Starting with "A Little Priest," though, it shifts into being much more obvious. By the way, "Epiphany" and "A Little Priest" (although some of the latter is cut) are both staged brilliantly. I loved them. I could watch Depp do "Epiphany" over and over again. "By the Sea" is tear-inducingly hilarious in ways that a stage musical could never accomplish.

Do I recommend seeing this? Yes, yes, absolutely. It's gorgeous and mesmerizing. Just don't expect it to be the original. I have to ask myself: why am I willing to accept these changes when I wasn't willing to accept those in That Movie Which Must Not Be Named? I guess the answer is--everyone involved actually cared about doing justice to the source material, even if they didn't do so in the way I'd have chosen.

See it. Try to do so with an open mind. If you haven't seen or listened to the original yet? Wait until after you've seen the movie. And enjoy your Johnny Depp.
Tags: movies, sondheim, sweeney todd
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