Wednesday, December 26, 2007

What's Black-and-White and Red All Over?

Tim Burton's latest film, that's what.

I saw Burton's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" last night. Fans of Sondheim will, no doubt, be interested to see what Burton cut in order to make a two-hour movie out of a three-hour Broadway musical. Burton fans, a group I find myself in, will want to see it, because it's Burton back doing what we love to see him do. Dark and quirky and dark. (Did I mention dark?)

The palates are classic Tim Burton: practically black and white (think especially his second "Batman" outing and "Sleepy Hollow") with buckets of technicolor blood straight out of a Hammer horror film.

The music is, as I've already mentioned, Stephen Sondheim, so nothing by long-time collaborator Danny Elfman this time around--though the overture certainly sounded like an Elfman arrangement. The lyrics are darkly funny and twisted, and even though Johnny Depp isn't a singer, he does alright, communicating with his eyes and sweeping gestures when he doesn't necessarily turn in a Carnegie Hall-level vocal performance. Helena Bonham Carter does nicely as the world weary, meat-pie shop owner. Alan Rickman is Alan Rickman, and as such does not disappoint. I would've liked to see Christopher Lee somewhere in this (having also appeared in several previous Burtons), but maybe he doesn't sing.

The plot. Yes. Sweeney Todd is a barber who shaves his customers and then slits their throats and drops them on their heads through a trap door. Todd's accomplice then makes meat pies out of them, thus disposing of the evidence and saving money on purchasing beef. Gruesome, yes, but there actually was such a character in Victorian London. His activities were blown out of proportion for Penny Dreadfuls (precursor to the pulp magazine and comic book,) but they did find evidence of at least two that he "polished off." The story then became a staple of stage melodramas and grand guignol theater. Check out Tod Slaughter (A sadly unappreciated actor who specialised in Victorian villains) as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to get a sense of what the early melodrama versions of the story were like. He's a larger than life villain who invited men in for a shave in order to rob them or, in one instance, kill off the guardian of the young woman he desires in order to try to force her into marriage with him.

Sondheim makes this monster a sympathetic character, though. Todd is a tragic hero, wronged by a crooked justice who frames him in order to marry his lovely wife. Sweeney Todd is out for his revenge upon the judge, and winds up killing a few other unfortunates to provide meat for his landlady/partner and keep his secret until he can bring about razor-edged justice on Rickman's evil judge.

However, like Melville's Captain Ahab, his quest for revenge consumes him, and in a plot twist worthy of O. Henry, he is doubly judged for his bloodlust. (Is that enough literary name-dropping?) The acute Bible student will possibly find parallels here to Habakkuk's dilemma: Judah is wicked and so they are judged, but the instrument of judgment is the far-worse offenders, the Babylonians. Ultimately, though, the Babylonians too were punished for their own wickedness. (Two lit references and a Hebrew prophet with a funny name? What's next? Shakespeare?)

On the subject of the madness of revenge and meat pies, you could do worse than to read Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." Better yet, watch the film version with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, and get your art-film quotient in at the same time!

If Sweeney Todd is short on redemptive characteristics, it's still a very well-made film. Nice camera work, effective lighting, quality acting, impressive art direction. Oh! and a guy singing a love song to his razors--what's not to love about that? Even so, of you're squeamish about blood and graphic violence, ya' might want to give this one a pass.


HMSnow said...

Just got back from watching Sweeny Todd. I was thinking to myself, "No wonder they didn't advertise this one. It's bound to be a hard sell, given that one of the lighter moments involves a child binge drinking..." I do like a little Burton, though I find myself not so much a fan of spurting jugulars. Oddly enough, the scene where Toby looks into the meat grinder is very much like part of a chapter in my current project. I guess I've got a little more Tim Burton lurking in the back of my mind than I thought. Of course, one of my favorite Christmas books is "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy." That should've been a clue there.

Allen said...

Ah yes! Oyster Boy!
I'm not a fan of slasher/splatter horror myself. (Consider my review of Saw III)
I can hardly wait for your next chapter. You've definitely got me hooked! (Oh look! It's the 7th! Hooray!)