29 January 2008

You Can't Imagine the Rapture in Store

I must be getting old. I'm missing puns, and bad jokes are drifting past me without me even noticing. I went to see Sweeney Todd a couple of days back, arranging to go for drinks beforehand. A couple of hours before I left the house I got a text from Dublin's most shameless immigrant punster:
'I'll just have a quick shave and a pie for my tea, then I'll be making my way in.'
Bizarre English people with their pie obsessions, I thought. Why on earth is he telling me what he's having for dinner? Or even that he's going to shave? Weird.

It was only during the film that I got the joke.

Predictably enough I loved the film, though I'm not sure that it edges out Ed Wood as my favourite Tim Burton film, as it did for Neil Gaiman. I think it probably pushes Big Fish into third place, mind.

It looked fantastic, and I found Depp truly compelling as London's favourite butchering barber. Helena Bonham Carter's take on Mrs Lovett was refreshing, to say the least -- in the show she comes across as utterly amoral, whereas here she's amoral, yes, but more than that she seems damaged. From her first appearance on screen she appears to be barely holding herself together.

Alan Rickman oozed refined menace as Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall was obsequiously brutal as Beadle Bamford, and Sacha Baron Cohen was hilarious as Pirelli, though I rather wondered why his non-Italian alter-ego wasn't Irish as he is in the show. The younger members of the cast were all fine too, and I was particularly impressed by having Anthony played by someone so young; making him obviously as young as Johanna lent their romance a Romeo and Juliet element, and also explained much of his naivety.

On the other hand, I missed quite a few songs -- I could understand their being removed on the grounds that they slowed the story down and made little cinematic sense, but Sondheim's songs aren't gratuitous, and it felt as though the characters were being slimmed down just to speed the plot up. Oddly, I couldn't help but feel that what the film really missed was an interval.

I know, that sounds a bit odd, but think how the first half ends with 'A Little Priest' as the showstopper. First Sondheim takes us through the great anti-climax of the Judge's visit to Todd's parlour, drags us down to the abyss of 'Epiphany', where Todd resolves to turn his rage on all London, and lead us laughing out of the theatre to the puntastic strains of the horrifically hilarious promise by Todd and Mrs Lovett that their partnership will serve anyone -- and to anyone -- at all.

There's no real sense of time at the start of the play's second half. Sure, in a sense 'Johanna' does follow on from 'God, that's good!', but it doesn't really need to. Essentially, what Sondheim does is to hurl us some time into the future -- we've no idea how far, but certainly Todd now has a thriving barbershop and Mrs Lovett has a thriving pie shop. Time has passed, that's the main thing, and that makes sense, because we've left their world for twenty minutes after 'A Little Priest', laughing and gasping about the first half over coffee or gin or ice-cream.

The film doesn't manage that. Instead we go straight from Todd and Lovett's murderously musical contract to Toby calling for our attention, singing the praises of Mrs Lovett's pies. Sure, time has passed, but it doesn't feel that way.

It's only a small gripe, really. When I watch it on DVD, I'll make sure to stop the film and make tea, or maybe have a pie, at the appropriate spot.

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