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COMING SOON: Sweeney Todd on Screen

A few select critics and industry types (Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner was among those in attendance, on the arm of his husband, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Mark Harris) were finally shown director Tim Burton’s long-gestating big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street last night at Lincoln Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (The film opens on December 21.) Though macabre violence is at the heart of the story, Burton takes it too far. I haven’t seen a bloodier film since Hostel: Part II.

Stage directors challenged to deal with Sweeney’s throat-slashing make a virtue of not having cinematic special effects at their disposal; I once saw a production in which an opened artery was conveyed by a red ribbon set free to flutter at the throat. Burton’s Sweeney paints the town, the screen, and maybe the whole multiplex red. Even Brian De Palma’s brutal Iraq film Redacted, which realistically depicts a Jihadist beheading a kidnapped American serviceman, doesn’t depict the actual throat slashing, though a woman in the audience screamed when I first saw that film. Burton does.

As played by a riveting Johnny Depp, Sweeney makes arteries gush like fountains, with stage blood spattering his face and arms and even the camera lens, then dumps the bodies to the cellar with sickeningly awful noises as the corpses plummet to land head first on a cement floor. Women at Lincoln Square were seen covering their eyes during some of the goriest moments.

Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, to my mind one of the towering works of art of the 20th century, is a delicate balance of the comic, the horrific and the tragic, and it loses some of its comic pull when its violence is this explicit. The movie is rated R, but it isn’t hard to imagine a faithful version that would earn a PG-13 if it left the slashing largely to the imagination. And that would suffice.


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