Attend the tale
The old joke about opera is that if you cut a soprano open song and not blood would issue forth; the joke in Burton's latest is that here it's the other way around, though for a moment or two there's doubt. Stephen Sondheim, arguably the best lyricist and composer in modern musical theater--my favorite anyway, within the limited range of my knowledge on the subject (never mind that atrocious British creator of large-scale McMusicals about cats, phantoms, Vietnamese prostitutes, and whatnot)--has been treated what may be his finest big-screen adaptation yet, by a fellow pop iconoclast working on what may be the artist's best-known work: Sweeney Todd, his 1979 musical about a psychotic barber (Len Cariou in the original Broadway production, Johnny Depp on film) who cuts clients' throats and with the help of the neighborly Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury on Broadway, Helena Bonham-Carter on film) turns them into meat pies. Sondheim, Burton, Burton Sondheim; may the slashing begin.
Burton's film begins with a series of swooping shots of Victorian London; one might be forgiven for thinking he's simply zooming in on a series of drawings, but they shift with every change of perspective in the camera's movement, they look more like diorama cut-outs than mere flat sketches. I couldn't help but compare the art to Eddie Campbell's work in From Hell, his and Alan Moore's fictional take on Jack the Ripper--ironic, because Campbell's drawings aren't exactly like the usual notions of Victorian art; they're black-and-white, they're rough, they don't glance at London with modestly averted eyes but stare hard at its horrors like a documentary filmmaker. Burton's camera levels a similarly unflinching gaze at images considerably more stylized, if no less horrific. This is the way to use CGI, not as some means of showing the impossible in a flashy manner (in effect, turning the impossible into the boringly digital), but as a way of realizing specific visual goals--in this case bringing two-dimensional illustrations to spatially profound life.
If this is a mock opera about a butcher, it's I suppose only fitting that Burton (reputedly with Sondheim's approval) performed minor surgery, cutting out entirely the one song I remember best ("The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"), reducing considerably one of its funniest numbers ("A Little Priest"), and removing parts of one song that lifts an already dark musical to the level of Swiftian savagery ("God, That's Good!"). This is perhaps a diminished Todd, a simplified Todd (I confess I've never seen an actual production), the offspring of a lesser Todd; I submit that it's as much Burton's Todd now as it is Sondheim's, and that the cuts and changes only serve to allow the cadaver--sorry, creation--to more easily slip into the mantle of Burton's peculiar sensibility.
Hence, instead of a beefy Cariou or George Hearn as Todd, a fragile Depp in Bride of Frankenstein makeup and 'do; instead of a dotty Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett, a doll-like Bonham-Carter, singing in a bright warble. Depp and Bonham-Carter are not Broadway belters with mighty voices, able to send melody tumbling to the rafters; instead they're introverted mannequins, meant to respond in giant close-up to every twitch of Burton's myriad strings. Depp in particular doesn't seem to be singing the songs so much as he's performing them, using them as his only means of cracking open Todd's glowering demeanor, to peer into the massive depression festering inside (you can see the cracks in his pale piecrust of a brow from the strain of holding it all together). Burton plunks this Todd firmly on his trophy shelf of brooding visionaries: he's an Ed Wood with a homicidal streak; an Edward Scissorhands with considerably less impulse control; a Batman with a worrisome taste for straight razors.
It's fascinating how Burton revels in visual textures. From the cardboard-and-modeling-clay set of the miniature town in Beetlejuice (1988) to the frozen zoo statues in Batman Returns (1992) to the gelatinous bottled brains of the invading aliens in Mars Attacks! (1996); each and every Burton film offers a moment--maybe more--where one can marvel at the shape and surface of sometimes vast, sometimes toylike, sometimes vast and toylike objects.
More and more, though, Burton's been exploring how textural details can suggest emotional states--thus, Todd's furrowed brow indicate forces barely kept in check; thus, the gleaming pavement he kneels on (the camera suddenly craning upwards to turn cobbled street into stony wall, the despairing Todd hanging from said wall) implies the unyielding nature of his circumstances. There's the endlessly varied behavior of blood echoing the endlessly varied behavior of dying men, the crimson juice spurting, spitting, fountaining out of vein or artery depending on the victim's temperament--how it drops from a slashed neck in a rich red curtain, or gurgles out a puncture wound like thick stew. And then there's Todd, looking again and again into a cracked mirror, the fractured glass reflecting the fractures of his own psyche.
Beyond inserting mere details Burton devotes entire sequences into making his point. In "A Little Priest" Lovett leads Todd (in a scene Burton may have borrowed from Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961)) from window to window to window to peer at people, soothe him, persuading him to her point of view. We're implicated as well; the camera assumes Todd's vantage, gazing through flawed panes at the distorted, two-legged creatures outside while he talks of them as if they were--well, meat.
In a later scene Todd ponders his barber's chair, tinkers with it, starts adding gears and cogs and clockwork to its underside with an accelerating sense of purpose. It's the standard-issue hero-at-work sequence; like Batman with his Batmobile or Ichabod Crane with his portable forensic analysis kit (Sleepy Hollow, 1999), or Edward with his snipping blades, Todd uses intellect or intuition or talent to work the problem--here the problem of building a device that will quickly and efficiently send a dead body into the basement below.
(The bodies dropping from the second floor are in the play, of course, but people who've seen both onstage productions and this film claim that Burton has added the extra aural detail of the corpse's head thudding into the basement below. Burton, ever-enamored of mannequin figures and toylike objects in most if not all his films, points out the ultimate obscenity: that our bodies, bereft of life and soul, are little more than sacks of meat--mannequins just as capable as their wooden counterparts of making a firm crunch! when landing on a stone floor.)
Putting all in context, Burton's Todd is yet another one of his misunderstood artists, this time a practitioner of the art of homicide, and the film is yet another of Burton's meditations on what it means to be such an artist, to attempt to create art in the face of a vulgar, uncaring world. His Todd creates scarlet-soaked masterpieces no one is meant to see save us (we are witnesses thanks entirely to the privileged lenses of Burton's camera). His Todd is a sensibility in development: born out of trauma, grown big and strong in exile, razor sharp in intensity and intent, able to improvise as necessary. When Todd finally realizes the full demands of his field of endeavor, when he finally becomes aware of the extent and consequence of his thirst of vengeance, when he--in effect--learns all there is to learn about the nature of his art, we are with him as he sits brokenly, like a marionette with cut strings, awaiting final judgment.
(First published in Businessworld,1/18/08)