Monday, January 14, 2008

I Want You Bleeders

ATTENTION: SPOILERS - as few as I could limit myself to....
This is the tale of an ordinary man, who had everything...
.......Barker, his name was. Benjamin Barker.
Until a man of power stole his freedom, destroyed his family and banished him... for life. And in his sorrow a new man was born.
.......Not Barker. Sweeney Todd, now. And he will have his revenge.
Great works of literature, stage and film are steeped with Revenge. If not the main theme of the work, then often a catalyst for action within it. It weighs heavily in almost any given Shakespearean play, most action films, classic novels such as Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and of course we cannot forget the film classic "Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn." Even the Bible is filled with stories of revenge, warnings against it, and even Paul's claim that the Lord hath said: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And God's vengeance has made for some of the grandest cinema ever! Sodom and Gomorrah. The great flood. Revelations is all about judgment to punish those who did not love much more vengeful can you get than a fiery lake for all eternity?

Revenge fascinates us because it is an ethical error that we all have longed to make at one time or another, or one we have made and secretly relished or for which we publicly suffered the consequences. It is a "sin" which proves in the end to usually be its own punishment. John Milton beautifully wrote in Paradise Lost:
Revenge, at first though sweet,
Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.
Violence fascinates us as well. This is evident in a stroll down the hall of the local movie house. Posters line the walls of films entitled: "Teeth", "Taxi to the Dark Side", "Rambo", "Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem"....and my favorite: "There Will be Blood" (which I have all intentions of seeing first chance I get). There can be no doubt of our blood-lust, which is how the folk tale of a barber who slew 160 men with a razor slowly blossomed into the formidable tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The story was first published in a Penny Dreadful called "The People's Periodical", in issue 7, dated November 21, 1846. A Penny Dreadful, boys and girls, was much like a comic book in their day; serial stories only, without so many pictures. They were pulp fictions written with subject matter not as refined as one might find in say...The New Yorker. And this very first printed version of the Sweeney Todd story was entitled "The String of Pearls: A Romance," by Thomas Peckett Prest who was renowned for basing his horror stories partly on factual crimes. The only similar such story of a crime, however, was out of Paris in 1825 of a hairdresser and his baker friend; not lovers, not 160 men and not out of revenge so much as just greed. This story too was never verified as fact.

What began as an urban legend grew to such proportion as to make it into print and from there, the theories and glorifications began. A fascinating article by Mark Gribben for makes the claim that he was in fact quite real and although only charged with ONE murder, was believed by authorities at the time and to this day to be responsible for upwards of 160 men and women. He contends that the straight-razor murders, the mechanical chair and the fabulous Mrs. Lovett and her meat pies are true. History, however, blurs the names of those involved and the motive. Johanna Oakley became Johanna Barker, the barber's daughter and her young champion turned from Mark Ingesterie to Anthony Hope. According to Wikipedia, Mrs. Lovett's first name has changed repeatedly over time: Marjorie, Sarah, Nellie, Shirley and Claudetta.

How does any of this matter in the tale of Sweeney Todd? Everything my children, Everything because uncertainties mean mystery and mystery is intrigue and intrigue is what makes us salivate for more.

More Murders! More meat Pies!More BLOOD!

Swing your razor wide!
Sweeney, hold it to the skies.
Freely flows the blood of those who moralize.
His needs were few, his room was bare.
A lavabo and a fancy chair.
A mug of suds, and a leather strop,
an apron, a towel, a pail, and a mop.
For neatness he deserves a nod,
does Sweeney Todd,
the demon barber of Fleet Street.
_____~from the Original play by Stephen Sondheim

The wicked tale of Sweeney Todd has appeared in print a few times in the late 19th century, but didn't start to earn world-wide fame until adapted for the stage, then later in the mid-20th century the screen as well. The infamous serial murdering barber has appeared in at least six well-received stage versions, six television versions, three films, a radio play and a song. This is an historical figure that has, at least mildly, captivated the public for more than 2oo years. I'd say that is an accomplishment of notoriety for any killer. I'm curious where Dr. Michael Stone would rank him...a 16 perhaps? The version of the story known best today is the retelling of Christopher Bond's 1973 play, which served as the basis for Stephen Sondheim's 1979 play both of the same name; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This will of course earn more credit vicariously through it's most recent incarnation as done by Tim Burton for the silver screen. Although the film starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman is more or less an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical - yes, folks, it's a musical - the film is written by John Logan (The Aviator, Gladiator ), who trimmed down the music by eliminating the narrating chorus pieces (thank god) and several other numbers through out. Interestingly enough, John Logan's original script presentation to Burton had even LESS music in it, and Tim, wanting to remain somewhat faithful to the Broadway musical from which they took their tale, insisted that more of it remain. Ironically he then removed two songs which he felt sounded "too theatrical."

Director's Prerogative!

So now you know it's a musical. Go to it knowing this and do not leave like the two would-be tough guys that stomped past me not five minutes in cursing a storm because they paid "like f*gs" to see a "fucking musical for f*gs." Get a little culture, people! So they's just like talking - WITH MUSIC. For you Johnny Depp band-wagoners....Cry Baby is a musical too, and it's more sarcastic than I am. Go John Waters.

Back to the bodies!

Like all Tim Burton films, Sweeney Todd is engorged with visual art from the fantastic costumes to the sets and clever directing. My only complaint is with an opening sequence that was unnecessarily done with CG. While the camera follows along a blackened skyline backed by blood red clouds, to bloody rain which falls onto Gothic statues and runs down to drip into the cogs of a machine, pooling in the gaps and eventually squeezing out to drip down....and follow this long sequence that ends with rats, the ocean and finally a ship, upon which is our first glimpse of Mr. Todd. It all sounds quite complicated and too difficult to have been shot live action, but I assure you, it is not. I have seen college film students create no less complicated sequences with only the most basic equipment (i.e. a tripod) and a rudimentary computer editing program. Their results were seamless and fantastic! So I must say, Shame on Mr. Burton for being either too lazy to film it or too much of a control freak to allow nature to add its own touch.

Admittedly, the opening sequence and the first few minutes of the introductory song make me cringe. When I watch it again on DVD...I'll be using those minutes to get my hot tea and candy bar ready. The opening song, however, was not one of my favorites of the original Broadway play either. It does, have a very theatre feel to it, which in my opinion could have been solved simply by....not using it. I was wary that it would immediately turn off my husband who is NOT a theatre person, although to his credit he did make it nearly fifteen minutes into the Broadway version on DVD. Even if it was only to placate me, it was a valiant effort - and the rest of you non-theatre people can take a lesson from that. Try it, but try it with an open mind.

Let the bodies hit the floor!!

Past that point I found the presentation of the story to be nothing less that delightful! Yes...I said Delightful, because I can find the story of a serial killer and a cannibal to be delightful. The characters were wonderfully portrayed with Johnny Depp bringing a little more humanity to the roll of Sweeney Todd than the too stoic performance by George Hearn (as seen in the televised 1983 version of the Broadway show, also starring Angela Lansbury). Not only did Depp add a certain level of blood lust that was nearly infectious, but there were moments when you could feel his sorrow. You felt his agony and you wanted him to succeed. You become just as eager to see Judge Turpin fall under the knife. This is of course aided by the absolute sliminess of Alan Rickman's characterization. An inhuman, covetous, rapist, pedophile, the Judge at no point offers any reason for forgiveness and Alan Rickman beautifully manages to strip him of any level of humanity coloring even the simple human moments with sadism and predaceous lust.
There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,
and it's filled with people who are full of shit,
and the vermin of the world inhabit it...
Not to be denied in all this is the lovely Mrs. Lovett, portrayed with charming imbalance by Helena Bonham Carter. While Angela Lansbury's stage performance brought a quirkiness and depravity to the role that was at time humorous as it was endearing, Carter has created a character less cartoonish and more tragic. Although she still brings the necessary comedic relief to an otherwise dark and depressing tale, the role of Mrs Lovett in Burton's film is muted and far easier for the audience to identify with rather than holding aside as a jester to Todd's MacBeth. This endearment of the character makes the film's conclusion that much more of a test to the audience as we are forced to question Todd's justifications in his actions. At what point has he gone too far?

All of this is fueled, of course, by the rescue and adoption of Toby (Tobias Ragg, Sweeney's allegedly true life apprentice). Toby is played with staunch determination and remarkable maturity by the fourteen year old film newcomer, Edward Sanders. This young man has been an actor for five years but never before done film, and was perfectly cast to play the wayward Toby. A troubled child of 10, Toby is already an alcoholic, was raised on the streets and in work homes and is all but enslaved to a man who would become Sweeney Todd's first shown victim. He is adopted by Mrs Lovett and set to work in her bakery and the maternal relationship that develops is both moving and foreboding. Sanders voice is strong and sweet as he performs the tune "Not While I'm Around," an innocent love song which I must note was also brought to some fame by Perry Como on his 1980 self titled release. Although Toby is a boy, there is a deep maturity to his words and Sanders portrays the depth of the relationship between Tobias and Mrs Lovett without crossing that line from innocence into impropriety.

The love between Anthony Hope, a sweet young sailor befriended by Sweeney Todd (as much as a vengeful killer can befriend someone) after a vague reference to saving Todd's life, and the china doll perfect Johanna Barker (Todd's daughter with an almost anime like appearance) is a sweet interlude which seems more than anything like a saccharine interruption from the more believable characters and their dark dealings. Both roles played by unknowns, respectively Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener, are portrayed with the necessary innocence to make them stand out starkly against the dark and vicious background of the murderous events taking place around them. While they are certainly more palatable than the stage performances of the 1983 televised version, they are still faerie tale-ish and difficult to identify with as an audience. Sadly, it felt as if Burton lost interest and dropped the ball when given an opportunity to truly corrupt the pure Johanna and mature her into a state of realism. Neither Johanna nor Anthony showed any development even after he is badly beaten and it is insinuated that she has suffered unnameable crimes while in an asylum. In the end I found both characters almost forgettable save for their position in relation to whatever nasty dastardly deed being exacted by the Judge, Sweeney Todd or the disgustingly smug Beadle Bumford, played with an unsurprising amount of rattiness by Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
Mrs. Lovett: Mr. T, you didn't!
[looks into the chest, sees Pirelli's dead body and gasps. Shuts it]
Mrs. Lovett: You're barking mad! Killing a man what done ya no harm!
Sweeney Todd: [polishing his razor] He recognized me from the old days. Tried to blackmail me. Half me earnings.
Mrs. Lovett: [relieved] Oh, well that's a different matter then. For a moment there I thought you lost your marbles.
The first body is the infamous Signor Adolfo Pirelli, played with slyness and precision by Sasha Baron Cohen. Yes, THAT Sasha Baron Cohen. While I will not express my opinions of Cohen's previous film efforts, I will state that he is an exceptional actor and comedian and he brought his talents to this role with an ease that speaks volumes of past deficits of grace. It is difficult to picture any one else flashing that purple cape and bragging about the pope, once Sasha is introduced as the Signor. His role is almost disappointingly brief with the exception that he is the catalyst for the delectable blood rain to follow.

The film is, not surprisingly, far more graphic, gruesome and bloody than the previous efforts of stage and screen, and yet when all is said and done there is a mere body count of 12. Sadly stunted when you look at the historical claims with which to work. Why does this disappoint me? Am I truly a sadistic psychopath delighted by the sight of blood and mayhem?

Well yeah...

But it is a rare occasion when one can sit down to watch the genre of our previous generations - a musical - and with it take part in a journey of unparalleled violence and deep-seeded revenge such as that of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Kiralfy Brothers be damned! Dress your girls in rubies and give your men a shave because I'll not sit through two hours of crooning for anything less than a Priest...meat pie.

From Prest to Bond to Sondheim and Burton, there is a genius among them that can take the darkest aspects of the human soul and present them in the merriest form of entertainment without making a mockery of it, but rather creating a sensation that has sustained for over thirty years. Tim Burton's gift to this legacy is that of accessibility. It isn't everyday that one can frequent the theatre, but a movie is nigh always on hand and he has gifted us that, and with it brought together a cast of magnificent demons to horrify an entirely new generation and awaken their blood lust as well. What better way to spend family night that to gather together and cheer for revenge...that one unforgivable sin that kills us all in the end. So entertain your dark side.
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!
He served a dark and a vengeful God!
What happened then, well that's the play,
and he wouldn't want us to give it away...
Not Sweeney
Not Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet Street...

1 comment:

Sara said...

"There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,
and it's filled with people who are full of shit,
and the vermin of the world inhabit it..."

I love that bit :)always have. I felt they did a great job, and though it is a musical, Kirk sat through it and enjoyed it as well - which is saying something as musicals aren't his cup of tea. :) But then both he and I love Burton and Depp.