24 January, 2008

Review: Sweeney Todd (part one: Skin Deep)

I should state up front my prejudices. Stephen Soundheim's Sweeney Todd is one of my favourite musicals. I first encountered it via the original broadway cast double album, loaned to me by a friend. In the halcyon days of my youth, when my delusions of grandeur suggested I might someday be a film director, making Sweeney Todd for the screen was such a cherished project that I had it storyboarded in my head, I avoided actually seeing it staged until I moved to London because I wanted nothing to taint this vision.

Given this, I'm afraid I have to split this review into two parts:

First, for those of you who don't know the original musical: go see this movie. It brings much of the dark vision of the gruesome revenge of the titular anti-hero in Victorian London to the screen. Johnny Depp serves well in acting and voice (although his attempt to sing in a mockney accent pitches his singing voice somewhere between David Bowie and Anthony Newley). Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall are well cast and sing passably if not brilliantly.

Tim Burton has made a pretty good fist of a film with this version, it gets a lot of things right. The dark and grimy look of Victorian London is spot on. I always imagined a kind of tinted, Elephant Man-esque cinematography, and the look here is similar, very restrained colour, a hinted sense of London's teeming labyrinthine mass. He does add a kind of Hammer Horror pastiche feel to the gore, which is in keeping with the Grand Guignol source of the story. There is much grue in the gruesome violence, so you may need to look away if you dislike sprays of red corn syrup.

There are times when it seems somewhat embarrassed that it's a musical. All of the chorus singing is mysteriously dropped. Several of the TV ads don't feature any singing, the one trailer I've seen uses stock music for the first half and only reveals singing, and Sondheim half way through. At least a third of the score is excised, strange considering that the full score is eight minutes shorter than the film, the dialogue and action shouldn't take up that much more time. I will go into more detail on this side in the second part.

All in all, it does convey the story of Sweeney Todd's over the top mission to avenge a great and cruel injustice, straying into frustrated, unjustified mass-murder along the way, with the black comedy of Mrs Lovett's pies recycling canibalistically "anyone, meaning anyone, and to anyone, at all!" So, go see the movie, then go out and acquire the original broadway cast album so you can enjoy the whole story, score and witty lyrics. Then you can read the second half of this review.



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