Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: Sweeney Todd

A deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives dredges up an unpleasant encounter with my cinematic bête noire, Tim Burton.

Sweeney Todd showcases a match truly made in hell. No, I’m not referring to the serial killer combo of demon barber Todd and cannibal baker Mrs Lovett, but to the pairing of composer Stephen Sondheim and director Tim Burton.

Stephen Sondheim cannot write music, he is a lyricist. Tim Burton cannot direct films, he is a production designer. Both men have deluded themselves into thinking they can do something they really can’t. Burton can make a film look great but he can’t tell a story or make it look real to save his life while West Side Story lyricist Sondheim won’t admit that his work is better when paired with a melodic composer like Leonard Bernstein. Vaughan Williams said the sure sign that a composer had no confidence in their basic material was that it would be over-orchestrated. The deafening organ chords that play over the truly disgusting opening titles betray that very insecurity as well as establishing the queasy universe of gore that Burton wishes us to live in for the next 2 hours.

The real shock is that what follows these credits is a CGI London created with special effects infinitely worse than 2001’s Moulin Rouge! How’s that for progress. The acting is uniformly awful, Alan Rickman deserves special mention as he is practically enacting his Dead Ringers parody. Johnny Depp, needless to say, cannot sing. But then of course Sondheim is the one musicals composer for whom that really doesn’t matter that much. Even his best song ‘Send in the Clowns’ can be croaked by anyone with a feel for phrasing as Judi Dench wonderfully proved on the West End.

Tim Burton has long confused darkness both visual and thematic with quality. Here there is a startling moment, as Burton and Bonham Carter turn a corner into a particularly sepulchral open street, when you realise that this film might as well be in black and white. Tim Burton has, and always had had, a positive fascination with evil. He delights in a story that pits villain against villain and the few heroic characters in this film (Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener) are shoved off the stage quickly whenever they appear and, characteristically, the finale leaves their storyline hanging as Burton quite simply does not care.

1/5

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October 12, 2015

Suffragette

Carey Mulligan stars as a young suffragette in 1912, whose life falls apart as she becomes ever more militant in her fight for the vote.

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Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works long hours in an East End laundry. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) also works there, delivering the freshly-laundered clothes. Their boss is a tyrant, but that’s the way of it in 1912. But when Maud is caught in the middle of a violent protest by Mrs Drayton (Lisa Dillon), and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) comes to work at the laundry, the door is opened to a new world. Maud finds herself testifying in front of Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) as part of a campaign by Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) to convince Parliament that working women deserve the vote. Little does Alice know that her husband, Cabinet Minister Benedict Haughton (Samuel West), is simultaneously ordering Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to break the ring circling around chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). And Steed targets newcomer Maud…

‘The Time is Now’ proclaims Suffragette’s posters. What is the contemporary relevance? Pankhurst proclaims “We want to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers.” We also hear “We will not respect the law, if the law is not respectable.” Lincoln ignored the similar contradiction in his legalistic philosophy. He wanted to make slavery illegal, but if he doesn’t respect the existing law, despite wanting everyone else to respect his future law, then he’s guided not by law but a higher ethical imperative. So his opponents could claim a similar ethical imperative when not respecting his law. Suffragette’s politics are as muddled as expected from Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan. Maud’s petulant “They lied to us” is shot down by Gleeson’s “They didn’t lie. You were promised nothing, and you were given nothing.” Yet the opening scroll tells us 50 years proved peaceful campaigning was a waste. Does Morgan know how long Catholic Emancipation took? The eternity it took for the Chartists’ demands to be met? (And we’re still waiting on one, annual elections).

Gleeson’s Irish detective makes you realise that blowing up post boxes, smashing in random shop windows, GBH, and dynamiting the Chancellor’s summerhouse aren’t civil disobedience. These are outrages, which, Fenian or Anarchist, were a feature of the times. There’s a more interesting period-appropriate Conradian tale floated when Steed tries to recruit Maud as a double-agent, but this is too simplistic a film for that. Eduard Grau renders 1912’s East End grimy and occasionally dreamy in his grainy, close-in camerawork, and Mulligan and Gleeson are on fine form as the antagonists. The problem is the script. Meryl Streep appears for two scenes as Pankhurst, but Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron shies away from contrasting Pankhurst’s comfortable fugitive life with Maud losing everything when Sonny shuns her for fear of unemployment and further ostracising by their neighbours. The closing scroll proclaims that because of Pankhurst women of property over 30 got the vote, i.e. Pankhurst, not Maud. WWI might deserve that credit, but in either case Maud was merely an expendable pawn.

Suffragette’s final image; women marching at Emily Davison’s funeral as Maud narrates; is jaw-dropping for historical obliviousness. Less than 14 months later, millions of men would march to death.

2.5/5

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