Monday, January 14, 2008

THE BLOODY HORSE. I'm surprised at the restraint Tim Burton shows with Sweeney Todd. To be sure, there's plenty of swooping camera movement, acres of grime and gallons of blood, and many inventive openings-up of the stage play (the "By The Sea" number was my favorite of these, with the comically morose Sweeney planted like a black beach umbrella in Mrs. Lovett's resort fantasy). But Burton doesn't really own the property so much as do a creditable movie version of it.

In a way I'd have preferred to see Burton do Brigadoon or something else that might have resisted his scalpel and thus encouraged him to outrageous mischief. He seems to respect Sweeney Todd a great deal -- in fact, by excising the original, didactic prologue and epilogue, he shows that he got the point well enough not to belabor it. Much as I love the musical, though, I would have liked to see Burton take more liberties with it. I appreciate, for example, Alan Rickman's vulpine Judge Turpin, but wasn't Burton tempted to show him running his fingers along something more interesting than the leather bindings of antique pornography? I wonder what Ken Russell would have made of it. A botch, perhaps. Still, with Burton in the ring with Sondheim, I expected a bit more grappling.

All in all, we get a first-class musical handled by a director with a feel for it, and that's not bad. The acting's very fine. It doesn't bother me that Johnny Depp's no George Hearn -- the film wouldn't bear that kind of high-voltage dementia. Though comparatively wan, Depp is sufficiently alert to the demands of his vengeance to keep us watching. Maybe if Burton keeps working with him, they'll eventually get to the places Hitchcock took Jimmy Stewart. Helena Bonham-Carter's underplaying beautifully captures the more ordinary madness of Mrs. Lovett. All the others are good, but I especially liked Timothy Spall as the Beadle. I only know Spall from his Mike Leigh grotesques in Life is Sweet and Topsy-Turvy, but here he really out-gargoyles himself, swollen with self-regard and bad diet, and most repulsive when he's trying to charm. The very tilt of his topper is nauseating. All the craft aspects are what you'd expect: extremely clever about torturing tones out of the Victorian London muck.

The blood must be mentioned. It may be that, in its display, Burton gave himself the largest measure of freedom. Were the film less successful, that would be a sad commentary. As it is, the bloodletting constitutes a kind of signature. An unnaturally viscid stream unites the elements in the credits; when the killing starts, more fluid sprays and seepings add color to Sweeney's joyless, silver-and-black shop -- a nice objective correlative. The climactic slaughters are best of all. (Mild spoiler alert.) When Sweeney achieves his revenge, he and Burton revel in a nicely choreographed, effulgent display of gore. And at the tragic conclusion, the blood drools thick and slow to unite, absurdly and pathetically, the lost lovers. With apologies to Roy Campbell, while I respect his use of the snaffle and the curb, it was something to see Burton give us at last the bloody horse.

UPDATE. There are apparently a lot of YouTube videos of Sondheim teaching musical acting. Here he instructs a couple of kids who are working on "My Friends." Kudos to the boy for wearing white pants; I would have worried about soiling them. But Sondheim is very gentle and very, very educational. I like to think Depp saw and took this lesson.

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