The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Full review behind the jump

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

: Tim Burton
: Screenplay by John Logan, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on the musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book), based on the play The String of Pearls by Christopher Bond
: Richard D. Zanuck, Laurie MacDonald, John Logan
: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener, Ed Sanders

What an exquisite darkness there is in
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. To see this movie on the big screen is to see things done with blacks and the deepest grays that hardly seem possible. Stephen Sondheim’s legendary musical, based on the 19th-century folk serial killer of British “penny dreadfuls”, has always brought a (literally) juicy relish to its tragedy; hurtling us, with the force of its wit, down a relentless conveyor belt through murder, mutilation and cannibalism. Yet it is not enough just to throw that red meat on a plate and present it to us. You need to make that darkness beautiful.

Thankfully, the musical so frightening to adapt that it has sat for nearly three decades outside the Hollywood fortress, crying for entrance, is enough to really rouse the passions of Tim Burton; surely the most consistently quirky director allowed to play with large budgets. His movies always have dazzles for the eyes, and cock-eyed sympathies to appeal to our inner misfit, yet you don’t always sense his own heart in it. He approaches story with a mystified air – not always understanding it, just determined to film it well. But you can tell when he’s found something that excites him – it’s usually when Johnny Depp ends up in front of the camera.

The collaboration between Burton and Depp, now on its sixth film, is one of the most enriching director-actor relationships in Hollywood history, right up there with John Ford and John Wayne, and Woody Allen and himself. The two give focus to each others’ best habits – not restraining their excesses, but giving them a mutually-inspiring frame in which to operate. And, set loose in the fetid splendor of Sondheim’s melodic slaughterhouse, they achieve one of their grandest triumphs.

With the bleached skin, shocked-out hair, and blade comfortably in hand, Depp’s Todd may look superficially like Edward Scissorhands’ singing evil twin, but this is not the childlike puppet yearning to be understood. Edward wondered, Todd seethes – his eyes are a portal into obsessive, volcanic malice.

Once he was young and happy, back when he was called Benjamin Barker, a barber with a beautiful wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and a beautiful baby daughter. But the corrupted Judge Turpin (syrupy Alan Rickman), who barely finishes sighing over a lost soul he condemns to the gallows before waving the next one in, wanted the beautiful wife for himself, and had Barker shanghaied away on false charges. The wife poisoned herself, and Turpin took the daughter Johanna as his ward; and now that she’s flowered into a young woman (Jayne Wisener), he’s practically brimming over with ideas on how she should properly reward his hospitality. Barker, in his new identity as Todd, intends to set up his old barbershop, and use his legendary skills to woo the Judge in for a long-deserved shave.

He finds an ally in Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of the meat pie shop downstairs, a woman who keeps hoping that Todd will notice her long enough to get those hints she keeps dropping about the price of meat “these days”. She looks like she wasn’t born into this squalor but grew organically out of it like the roaches that scuttle on her countertops. Yet she has her own twisted fantasies of happiness; one of the movie’s funniest interludes has her dreaming of a seaside holiday with Mr. Todd, who endures it exactly as you might predict.

Todd and Lovett, partners in pale misanthropy, remind us that Burton has always been more at home with the grotesque. His caricatures, like the clownish huckster Signor Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) and the Judge’s toadly minion Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) are given such loving detail, so many piquant flourishes within their nastiness. By contrast, the ingénues in this opera, the grown-up Johanna, with her impossibly-lilting voice, and a blushing sailor lad named, of course, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), look by their very prettiness to be the true caricatures, spiteful intrusions of gee-whiz fancy onto the killing floor. It was Sondheim’s impish intent to have us chuckling at their naïveté while awaiting the next fountain of blood – in Burton, whose expensive sci-fi prank Mars Attacks! was conspicuously Mars-biased, this streak of devilishness finds a perfect partner.

The role of Todd is one of the great baritone parts in modern musical theater, and Depp decidedly lacks the cavernous voice purists may crave. Yet attention to the unique speech rhythms he creates for each of his characters confirms that Depp, though not an amazing singer, is an undeniable vocal artist, enough to sculpt the lyrics to the purpose of providing his own emotional instrument for the orchestra. And it should be noted just what a challenge it is to give a performance like this on-screen at all these days, given modern shooting styles. Think about what a balancing act it is: to be iconically larger-than-life with the camera close enough to see your pores. Think about how much inner fury you must channel, while having the expertise of technique to make it all coherent within itself; how much trust you must have in the filmmakers and fellow cast members that they’re not going to leave you hanging out there, but fill in the canvas as boldly as you’ve occupied its center. Let go your preconceptions about vocal octaves, Johnny Depp in this role is screen acting at its finest.

Also at its finest in Sweeney Todd is the design work: Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography lulls you into a false monochrome, hypnotizing you in advance of scarlet geysers gracefully erupting, while Dante Ferretti’s sets and Colleen Atwood’s costumes build an eye-popping Dickensian slum filled with shadows and dust. It is so vividly black and tactile that I would have rather seen this in 3-D than Beowulf, although the theatre managers may have needed to provide buckets for such a screening.

This is a world as fully-realized as any that has ever featured in a Tim Burton film. I see this as no coincidence. Just as Sweeney Todd’s homicidal pessimism makes such a profitable fit with Mrs. Lovett’s need for fresh meat, the cesspit artistry of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street gives Burton and Depp the inspiration to make their most poisoned cinematic Valentine.


  • I also dug the "By The Sea" number. Johnny Depp in that ridiculous yet gothic-looking bathing suit, Helena Bonham Carter caught in her deluded reverie, little Toby on the blanket beside her. Though I find myself humming "The Worst Pies in London" on almost a daily basis. And never getting sick of it. "Ed Wood" was my favorite Tim Burton. Not any more. Oh, and speaking of Dante Feretti, "The Fly" opera sounds, well, as bizarre as its source material.

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 9:45 AM  

  • Mike - You may be the only person I know who thinks of Sondheim as "hummable". Don't ever change.

    By Blogger Nick, at 4:10 PM  

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