Sunday, February 03, 2008

Razors at the ready

Before I even start to talk about the movie of Sweeney Todd, a quick word on the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road: wow. Luxury incarnate, and they treat their patrons like adults - you're allowed alcohol! In a cinema! It's a world away from the infantilising multiplex.

The movie is a very successful translation of the stage show, and in fact betters it in several important respects. Tim Burton is lucky enough to have Stephen Sondheim still about to
supervise the musical changes necessary to take it down from a 3-hour modern opera to a 2-hour motion picture. Losing some of the more filleresque songs - 'Ah Miss' is tiresomely cute, 'Parlour Songs' - serves well, and even getting rid of the famous 'Ballad of Sweeney Todd' (the Greek chorus of the play) isn't disastrous, since the music is kept as a dramatic introduction.

Perhaps the other important change is in using actors who sing instead of acting singers. When you're staring up at a giant screen, you cannot escape the actors. When I saw Bryn Terfel as Sweeney, he was fantastic and his voice was the strongest, but I never quite bought the mania
as much as Johnny Depp, who is a natural at the demented. His voice is nicely wrecked, too, slightly Cockney and anguished. Helena Bonham Carter also has the comic timing and heart/gall to play Mrs Lovett, and the 'Not While I'm Around' scene proves her skill: she has to yearn and plot simultaneously.

The scenery and CGI effects are typically fabulous, as Burton productions demand. London - first entered under Tower Bridge in the grey-black gloom - is full of grim alleys and dark corners where mischief makes. From the rooftops to the sewers, no detail has been left unmurked, enhancing the whole project and reinforcing the terror of the Bernard Hermann-influenced score. The throat-slittings are appropriately grim, with plenty of spurting, gushing gore, and the corpses sliding through the trapdoor hit the floor with a wonderful crunch.

There was one aspect of the stage show which I felt was still uncorrected in the movie - the ending still left loose ends. What happens to Johanna and Anthony (who looks more sylphlike than his inamorata)? They're not turned into pies but then they're not given resolutions either.

The film accomplishes almost everything the stage show does, albeit with less brilliant (if still entirely tolerable) singing. It does so with economy and gory panache, evoking terror through sound and sight, letting Depp and Bonham Carter loose on roles they were born to play.

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