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‘Sweeney Todd,’ a macabre masterpiece

Sweeney Todd
Rated: R for graphic, frequent violence
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jamie Campbell Bower, Timothy Spall, Ed Sanders
Directed by: Tim Burton
Screenplay by: John Logan
Music by: Stephen Sondheim
Rating: PPPP (out of 4)
Art can be messy.
Paint isn’t always applied carefully with a brush. It may be poured, flung, sprayed onto the canvas.
Director Tim Burton, discussing the bloodiness of his latest film, “Sweeney Todd” in an interview on National Public Radio, said “We felt like we were making more like Jackson Pollock paintings than we were, like, a splatter movie.”
A hazy, dull gray Victorian London is the canvas, providing a stark contrast to the bright scarlet blood that falls, drips and splashes like rain throughout this tale of murder, revenge and even cannibalism.
Maybe this movie will usher in a whole new genre, the slasher musical. Reportedly, Stephen Sondheim is quite pleased with this adaptation of his stage work.
If you are a Sweeney purist, you may not like it. But perhaps you saw both excellent local productions of Sweeney Todd, first by Piedmont Players, then Catawba College, and now you’re ready for something different. Note that the credits say the film is “based on” the musical by Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. It is not a movie version of the stage play.
Screenwriter John Logan managed to excise an hour from the story, cutting as skillfully as Sweeney himself, carving the chorus completely out, and trimming verses. The Sondheim-approved screen version is tight and riveting.
Music is still omnipresent, controlling the mood, manipulating the action. But instead of pausing for singers to demonstrate their vocal prowess as they do in stage musicals, the score in this version propels actors from scene to scene.
Sondheim’s dark tonalities and harsh dissonances set the mood, then the beauty of his melodies lull the listener into temporary repose, making the violent scenes even more jarring by the sudden, startling contrast.
Johnny Depp plays the role of the demon barber of Fleet Street with such an air of wronged pathos that no amount of murder on his part seems able to prevent him from eliciting sympathy from the audience. When Sweeney returns after 15 years imprisoned in Australia for a crime he didn’t commit, he resents all of London and despises mankind, not just the judge from whom he plans to exact his revenge.
After contemplating the man-eat-man nature of the society around him and people’s suffering, the barber can rationalize the randomness of his crimes. He seems to feel he is putting people out of their misery and relieving society’s burden. The fact that he can at the same time help out his landlady by providing an ingredient for her pies is just a bonus.
Mrs. Lovett would like to turn this symbiotic relationship into something more romantic, but the love song Sweeney sings is to the instruments of his profession. When he holds up a gleaming razor and says, “At last, my arm is complete again,” we know Mrs. Lovett doesn’t have a chance.
The purveyor of suspect pies is performed so easily and naturally by Helena Bonham Carter that I wonder if the authorities need to look in her cellar.
Sacha Baron Cohen as the competing Italian barber Pirelli has relatively little screen time, but a little of him goes a long way. He is perfect for this flamboyant, cartoonish role.
Alan Rickman calmly exudes creepiness as the lecherous Judge Turpin. With Timothy Spall as his detestable lackey, Beadle Bamford, it feels like a Harry Potter reunion of Rickman’s Snape and Spall’s Peter Pettigrew, except Spall comes across as even more rat-like in the Sweeney role.
Laura Michelle Kelley plays wife Lucy in flashbacks to happier times. She also provides one of the biggest surprises in the story, which I won’t give away here.
Jamie Campbell Bower is the dreamy young sailor whose life keeps intersecting that of Sweeney. He falls in love with Sweeney’s lovely and chaste daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener). The glowing aura of goodness that surrounds the young couple stands out all the more beside everyone else’s cruelty, another study in contrasts that fill this film.
I’m surprised more is not being said in the media and reviews about newcomer Edward Sanders, the child actor who plays Toby, Mrs. Lovett’s orphaned shop helper. He is a grimy, cockney angel. His acting is convincing and his singing is remarkable. When Toby, grateful to be given a home away from the workhouse, sang of his devotion to Mrs. Lovett ó “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around,” I was in tears.
Of course, Toby could be no match against the potential harm that lurks around each corner of this tale, and I wasn’t given long to savor that, or any touching moment in the film. I knew I might as well brace myself for the inevitable and gruesome finale.
Much ink has been spent by critics complaining about the unprofessional singing in the movie.
On the contrary, I feel the actors should be commended for their singing. Sondheim’s score is challenging even for trained musicians, and the cast did a fine job pitch-wise. Anything they lacked in proper technique they made up for with emotion.
The artificiality of dubbed voices would have been distracting. As it is, the actors move naturally between their singing and speaking, as if the two are the same.
Do not take your children, or anyone squeamish, to this movie. Only go if you can appreciate the music and the movie’s remarkable construction without being appalled by frequent, graphic, gory violence.
I am not a fan of horror or slasher films. But I’m willing to go as far as calling Tim Burton’s amazing tone painting “Sweeney Todd” a macabre masterpiece.
But you may never look at a pot pie the same way again.
nnn
Contact Sarah Hall at 704-797-4271 or shall@salisburypost.com.

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