Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- close shaves, lust and revenge

Director: Tim Burton, 2007 (R)

 I recently saw Portland Center Stage’s production of this musical.  It was thoroughly entertaining in a dark way. But I wanted to compare it with the film version, since Burton is the master of dark cinema. And the two compare favorably: where the PCS stage version is campy and darkly comic, Burton’s movie is just dark. It’s Gothic grim, with gruesome violence.

 The story should be well-known, based on the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. Barber Benjamin Barker has been unjustly sent away from Victorian London to Australia by corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, Snape in the Harry Potter movies).  Now he returns 15 years later, fueled by anger and a thirst for revenge. No longer Barker, he now goes by the moniker Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp in his then 6th partnership with Burton).

The PCS version began with the ballad of Sweeney Todd, sung by the ensemble, by Burton chooses to excise this song. Instead, he goes straight to the London docks, where we meet Todd and young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) as they disembark the schooner that returns Todd to English shores.  And then as Burton sings about the London he knew in the days of his young marriage, Burton transports us there with flashback. Thus we get to see Judge Turpin look lustfully upon Barker’s beautiful wife and instruct Beadle (Timothy Spall, Wormtail in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) to arrest Barker.

Lust is a sin. The writer of Proverbs warns his readers, “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes” (Prov. 6:25). Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, goes further, declaring: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus even tells us the solution to lust: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29). To put it differently, to avoid lust don’t look. Turpin did not heed that advice. He looked, he lusted, he looted.

Despite showing a little of London, especially as Todd returns to Fleet Street to the shop he once used, Burton retains the feel of a stage-play with tight and claustrophobic sets. His use of the sewers underscores the moral darkness that is at the heart of this play. Todd’s repeated line further emphasizes this: “There's a hole in the world like a great black pit. And the vermin of the world inhabit it, And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit, And it goes by the name of London.” In Fleet Street, Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s real-world romantic partner). A buxom woman, she is like Todd morally dark. She recognizes him and eventually sees a business proposition in his work waste.

Filling out the cast of characters are Jayne Wisener as Johanna, Todd’s daughter trapped like a bird in a cage as Turpin’s ward; Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, the fake-Italian barber who becomes Todd’s first victim; Ed Sanders as Toby, Pirelli’s boy who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s apprentice; and Laura Michelle Kelly as the beggar woman whose eventual death turns this into a tragedy of epic proportions.

Surprisingly, the principal actors hold their own as singers. In particular Depp maintains a believable accent even while carrying the dark songs, despite the odd facial tics he adds to complement Todd’s weird hair. More than this, though, Depp communicates the depth of poison that his anger has created through his constant scowls and grimaces. Even in rare scenes where he smiles, his chilling eyes undercut the warmth. And undercut he does, literally using his razor “friends” to cut under his customers’ chins. The throat-cutting is especially gory, perhaps to be expected in a movie (it is downplayed in the PCS stageplay after the first murder).

Revenge drives Todd. It informs his every decision. And in the end, it destroys him.

The Bible has much to say about revenge. In the Old Testament, Moses wrote the following command: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) The answer given here to revenge is love, but that is not a message Todd wants to hear. The apostle Paul gives a similar command in his letter to the Romans: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Here we are told one reason for not resorting to revenge: God himself will avenge. But it will be in his time, not ours. Injustice dealt out on earth will eventually be addressed. But we cannot sit in God’s seat of justice, much as we would like to do so. Revenge creates its own forms of injustice as we take the law into our own hands to violate.

Burton has given us a terrific adaptation of the musical play.  And one that underscores the dangers of revenge. If we give in to this juicy temptation, it will ultimately destroy us, like it did Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street.

Copyright ©2012, Martin Baggs

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