Friday, December 28, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (***1/2)

Directed by Tim Burton


Stephen Sondheim's bloody musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the most beloved stage plays in history. It's dark images and abundance of blood never stopped bevies of fans to come in to watch the story of the throat-slitting barber. So, you could see how many fans might have been worried when word came that it was going to be made into a Hollywood motion picture. How would you be able to get away with making this into a film with jeopardizing it's ferociousness?

In comes Tim Burton--possibly the most imaginative filmmaker since Stanley Kubrick--to take the reigns over the project. He brings in his most common collaborator in Johnny Depp to play the title character, and his wife, the ageless Helena Bonham Carter, to play the role of the meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett. How would these two performers, with no true singing talent, do in the roles? In a word: beautifully. It's true that neither Depp nor Carter have voices that blow you away, but they construct the performances so well that our focus moves from the singing to the power of the songs themselves.

The story of Sweeney Todd begins with the story of Benjamen Barker (Depp), a barber married to the beautiful Lucy, with a gorgeous baby daughter named Johanna. When the powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) falls for Lucy and lusts after her, he has Barker disbarred and takes Lucy and Johanna for himself. After fifteen years, Barker manages to get out of prison and returns to London where he has changed his hairstyle and has become Sweeney Todd, a man obsessed with revenge on the people who took his life and family.

His old barber shop is now owned by Mrs. Lovett (Carter), a dainty woman who is rumored to make the worst meat pies on the planet, and has a shop covered with cockroaches. When she realizes Todd's true identity, she tells him that Lucy has since poisoned herself, and Johanna is still living in merciless captivity by Judge Turpin. Meanwhile, Todd's young companion on the ship to London, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) falls in love with Johanna, but is unable to get to her through Turpin's strict constraint.

After embarrassing the showy, Italian barber Signor Pirelli (a very cute cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen), Todd and Lovett construct a nearly flawless business proposition. With his barbering skills, Sweeney Todd will draw customers who, seeking a shave, will have their throats viciously sliced, and Mrs. Lovett will use the bodies to bake the meatiest meat pies ever sold in London. Todd is able to extract his thirst for blood, and Mrs. Lovett is able to make much of a profit on her much-improved meat pies.

After this plot summary, it seems obvious to say that this is one of the bloodiest films that I've ever seen. Every throat that Todd cuts sprays blood in countless directions, and afterward, Todd uses a foot petal to send their bloody corpses down a chute to the cellar, where Mrs. Lovett cooks up a nice pie with their remains. Its hard to imagine any filmmaker other than Burton who can construct this bloodbath without putting the original material at risk (he dealt with this delicate balance before in Sleepy Hollow). Burton instead makes the flaming red blood another corner stone in the spectacle that makes the film so tantalizing.

The music in film is preserved from the original Stephen Sondheim material, and the movie is essentially wall-to-wall with music. Like I've mentioned before, none of the actors in the film have particularly striking singing voices, but they're able to sing without power and allow the booming music in the background take center stage. Powerful songs such as "Johanna" and "No Place Like London" are reprised throughout the film with enough sweetness that the strength of voice never distracts. Remember, voice strength never hurt Chicago, which is easily the best American musical since Cabaret.

The performances in the film by Depp and Carter are what truly drive the film. Depp's portrayal as the vengeful, razor-wielding Todd is one the best, if not quirkiest of his career. Depp has spent the last fifteen years taking roles that makes us say "Well, I've never seen anyone do that before", and he continues with that trend here. As for Carter, her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett (a role immortalized by Angela Lansbury) is sweet, irresistible, and equally demented. Lovett's unyielding crush on Todd makes her the one character in the story a bit stranger than he is.

Their are very good performances in all the supporting roles as well. Alan Rickman's ruthless performance as the tyrant Judge Turpin is one of power and authority, a trait that this much underrated actor has employed in many roles over his career. Jaime Cambell Bower is convincing as Anthony, a young man fallen head over heels with the daughter of Todd. A true tour-de-force comes from a performance of the young Ed Sanders as Toby, a young vagabond who goes from the workhouse to working for Mrs. Lovett when her business booms. His presence is felt in his love for Mrs. Lovett and his finale has so much power, that I shall not reveal it.

Sweeney Todd is a testament to the filmmaking talent of Tim Burton. With this movie, he has established himself as a true cinematic visionary, with very few of his peers being nearly as brave or wondrous. It always seemed that Burton was more suited for animation, since live-action seems to stilt his infinite capabilities. But a film like this one makes you glad that he was willing to give it a shot. Never was beautiful, show-stopping music and unrelenting violence combined in a better way than this.

No comments: