December 24, 2007

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I have never had the pleasure of seeing a stage production of Sweeney Todd, something that will hopefully one day be corrected. My first exposure to the tale was in Jersey Girl, of all places, where one of the songs is performed at a school talent show. Now, I am familiar with what Sweeney did, as well as the special ingredient in the meat pies. What I was not familiar with was the reasons behind his mad chop shop of a barbershop. Having now witnessed Tim Burton's big screen take on the musical story of horror, in all it's gothic, gory, tragic glory, I have come to love it. I cannot think of a director more suited for this type of material than Burton. His dark, comic, and darkly comic sensibilities hit just the right tone.

Sweeney Todd is a macabre tale of revenge and tragedy in the guise of a musical. It essentially turns musical theater on its ear. This is likely a result of my lake of experience in the realm of musical theater, but I can quite safely say that I have never seen anything quite like this. It is the perfect antidote to theater musicals turned filmed musicals such as Chicago and Phantom of the Opera. Sweeney Todd is not filled with huge chorus numbers, or big song and dance sequences. It has the visual opulence that one would want from musical theater, yet has more intimate, personal feel than other big screen productions.

Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) was once known as Benjamin Barker, a young and talented barber who had a lovely young wife, Lucy, and baby girl. One day the young family is spied by the selfish and cruel Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), he sees Benjamin's lovely wife and wishes to have her for his own. To that end, Turpin has Barker arrested and deported on trumped up charges, and steps in to be Lucy's hero. That sets the stage for Barker's return.

The film opens with Barker, now called Sweeney Todd, returning to London from his 15 year exile. Upon his return, he makes his way to Fleet Street where he had lived with his family. It is not long before he learns of his family's fate, from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Hearing the word of their fate, his desire for revenge gains strength. He decides to use his barbering skills as his means of revenge. Of course, getting rid of his handiwork becomes a problem. This is where Mrs. Lovett's skills as a baker come in useful. I am sure even those unfamiliar with the musical can see where this is going.

As great as that set up is, there is no way that it can sustain a full length feature of any importance or, dare I say, greatness. To fill in the spaces and the inadequacies of pure plot is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, with a touch of Alexandre Dumas. There is strong emotion at the core of the story that draws you in and holds you in its thrall as it plays out to its inevitable conclusion. The further in you get, the more clear the eventual outcome becomes. The characters hurtle deeper into the abyss from which no one will be able to escape.

I dare not go any further. I do not want to be the one to rob the uninitiated of the joys of uncovering the secrets held within the meat pies nor just how deeply the desire for revenge runs. Let me just say that even when you see it coming, it is still shocking and utterly heartbreaking.

The performances are all first rate. Johnny Depp nails the tone and demeanor of a man burning with thoughts of revenge and a thirst for blood, tempered by his longing love for his lost wife and child. He is a man dancing on the edge of the abyss ready to jump in at a moment's notice. It is a careful balancing act between restrained rage and outright flamboyant aggression. To counter his darkness are the quirky shadows that Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett dances. She has her own eyes on the title character, and shields him from all that he should know and aids him in his quest for revenge.

The supporting cast is strong as well, led by Alan Rickman's slimy Judge Turpin. There is something terribly distasteful about him and Rickman hits all the right notes. At Turpin's side is Timothy Spall's Beadle Bamford, a vermin-like crony that oozes all that is bad. There are also the star crossed lovers Anthony and Johanna, played by the odd featured Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener whose features resemble a porcelain doll. Finally, we have the youngest cast member, Ed Sanders, as Toby the earnest youngster with the strong voice. Oh yes, let's not forget Sacha Baron Cohen's comedic turn as the rival barber named Pirelli.

Tim Burton heads up the film with some nice camerawork, and an absolutely gorgeous visual style. This is a dark and dreary London, bathed in shadows and colored with a washed out color scheme. Aiding Mr. Burton with this gorgeous looking film is Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski, who paints the screen with shadows. This could be looked at as the culmination of his dark potential that began with films like The Crow and Dark City.

Beyond Burton's accomplishment, credit must be given where credit is due. Stephen Sondheim penned the work, along with Hugh Wheeler. Together they brought the world of horror its own great tragedy that shocks, but is also filled with an emotional core. The musical was then adapted to the big screen by John Logan, who has come a long way since Bats.

Bottomline. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is easily one of Tim Burton's finest accomplishments. He has put his stamp on a tragic love story for the ages. It is steeped in darkness, spiced with humor, and told through glorious song. It is a film that is equally personal and intimate and grandiose, a wonderful example of the grand guignol aesthetic.

Highly Recommended.


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