Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Tale of Sweeney Todd: TV Movie

This non-musical version of Sweeney Todd stars Ben Kingsley in the title role and Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Lovett. The basic story is the same as the musical: Sweeney Todd is a barber on Fleet Street who murders those clients he feels do not deserve to live and Mrs. Lovett takes care of the bodies by baking them into her "specials" whose secret ingredient she does not disclose. And, in the end, Mr. Todd is killed by his apprentice.

The motivation for Mr. Todd's wrath is different, however. Instead of suffering at the hands of a particular magistrate, Mr. Todd has spent time in Her Majesty's Army in Africa. One of his comrades-in-arms was a man who died there, leaving behind a young daughter, Alice, whom Mr. Todd vowed to raise and to protect.

What happened to Mr. Todd and his comrades in Africa and its importance is revealed slowly. And, in fact, Mr. Todd's actions might never have been revealed except that he happened to kill a rich merchant. And a young American, Ben Carlyle (Campbell Scott) comes to London, looking for this merchant who owes Ben's employers either $50,000 or the equivalent in diamonds.

Ben happens to be staying at the inn where Mr. Todd's ward, Alice, is a maid. As Ben tries to locate the merchant, who has been missing for several weeks, he and Alice fall in love. Alice confides in Mr. Todd, who is less than pleased.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett has calculated that she and Mr. Todd finally have enough money to escape from London--and a pretty dismal place this London is, too. A war has been going on for years and is a drain on the economy and the morale of the common folk. (I'm guessing it's the Napoleonic war, but it's never stated.) Additionally, there are the "Runners," a quasi-police force, led by a "Major." They are supposed to keep order, which they do by use of force and bullying. They aren't really interested in finding the missing merchant, unless there is something in it for them.

Mr. Todd also has an apprentice, a young mute whom Mr. Todd has rescued from the asylum. Charlie knows that Mr. Todd has killed the merchant Ben is looking for, but he since he cannot talk, and is intimidated by Mr. Todd, he doesn't tell anyone.

Except for Lucy, who works in the basement of Mrs. Lovett's, grinding the meat Mrs. Lovett feeds into the hopper. On a rare break from work, Charlie makes Lucy understand that he knows what happened to the merchant. Mrs. Lovett becomes suspicious and asks Mr. Todd to "take care of her." He does. And he also chains Charlie to the wall in the basement because he is fond of the boy, in his way, and decides not to kill him.

Ben has learned enough to start to put the pieces together. Mrs. Lovett can feel the net closing but Mr. Todd will not leave. Mrs. Lovett arranges to kidnap Alice and tells Mr. Todd that she will release Alice when they are safely on the ship away from England. Ben shows up at the barber shop and he and Mr. Todd begin a dangerous dance of words, where Mr. Todd reveals what happened in Africa to him and to Alice's father.

The movie ends with the death of Mr. Todd at the hands of his apprentice. Alice and Ben are free to go off to America, with Alice never realizing the truth about her guardian.

Ben Kingsley's Sweeney Todd is much more likable than Johnny Depp's. He is a charmer, obsequious to his customers, who include the local vicar. He chatters while he shaves, sharing the local gossip. Joanna Lumley's Mrs. Lovett's relationship with Mr. Todd is more a matter of convenience than love, as is Mr. Todd's with her. The madness of this Mr. Todd lurks far beneath the surface, with few clues surfacing. The only person Mr. Todd really cares for is Alice.

There are a couple of scenes with partial nudity, one where Mrs. Lovett is "spanking" (with a leather strap) the Major, one with Mrs. Lovett and Mr. Todd in bed, and one where Alice is rising from Ben's bed and puts on her chemise. The throat-slitting scenes are not as dramatically bloody as in the musical version. Mrs. Lovett's butchery is done behind closed doors. Ben discovers the decomposing bodies in the sewer, munched on by rats.

This is an Irish-British production, originally shown in the U.S. on the USA Channel in 1998, so there is no MPAA rating. Because of the subject matter, I would definitely rate this PG-13 or higher, depending on the child. And because this version is less theatrical, the horror is more subtle. Mr. Todd's reason for revenge is less obvious and so his revenge is less focused and more diffuse. This movie also recreates the London of the 1800's, illustrating the squalor and the hardships of the lives of the common citizens of that time. (It's not Jane Austen country, certainly!) Plenty of opportunity for discussion across many subjects.

Hubs didn't care for it as much as the musical, but then he's partial to musicals. I was fascinated, especially by Ben Kingsley's performance.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out 5 Golden Tickets

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party

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