Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This marks the sixth collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. It seems that all of their Gothic styled previous outings (Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissor Hands, etc) have been leading up to this. This most bizarre hybrid of horror, drama, musical, and even a little comedy create the perfect fodder for this well seasoned team.

The story of Sweeney Todd dates back to the mid eighteen hundreds. It is the story of Benjamin Barker, and man wronged by a judge. Years later he seeks revenge by opening a barber shop and killing customers in his chair- all in hopes of getting to the judge. In various versions he has a partner, Mrs. Lovett (played in this version by Burton's significant other and frequent collaborator, Helena Bonham Carter), who bakes the dead bodies into meat pies and sells them in her restaurant. The story is a clear commentary on class divisions in 19th century London, and the vapid living conditions in the city. Not only is he trying to exact revenge on a corrupt government official, but he is also killing the rich and feeding them to the poor. Seems like a pretty bitter commentary to me.

It wasn't until 1979 that composer/playwright Steven Sondheim got hold of the material and turned it into the version we are familiar with today. His musical is filled quirky, memorable, and sometimes haunting songs. His music and requires much more appreciation than most musical fare. The surprising part was that it took almost thirty years for a major movie release of it (there were some TV and non-musical versions made in that duration). I'm glad it fell into the ample hands of Tim Burton. Nobody but him could do this movie justice.

First of all, everybody can sing. Depp's and Carter's characters don't have the vocal gymnastics you would expect from Andrew Lloyd Webber. That was left up to newcomers Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower, who play Todd's daughter and her suitor. In fact, Campbell took the lead on my favorite song in the musical. Some humor is variously inserted throughout the movie, especially during some of the musical numbers. Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame) plays a rival barber in all of his over dramatic glory. His song garnered more than a few laughs from the audience. His apprentice (played by 14 years old Ed Sander) navigated through several numbers that would have left most people tongue tied. Perhaps my favorite scene was the unlikely duet between Depp and Alan Rickman (the judge that had wronged him) in the barber chair.

Besides the utter absurdity of the plot, and the even more absurd idea of it being a musical, there were some rather funny moments in the relationship between Todd and Lovett. He plays out an incredibly dramatic imaginary musical number, and she patiently waits for him to be done. Or the scene when the two of them sing about what the people pies will taste like. It's this sort of sick humor that gives the characters a feeling of hopelessness. When the characters are singing about cannibalism, it shows just how dark the society is in which they are living.

If you strip away all the music and the supporting characters, Sweeny Todd is a classic tragic hero. He becomes so engrossed in his own obsession that it leads to his downfall. Depp plays this very well, and everybody else plays off him equally well. Burton creates a dark portrayal of 1800s London. The only vibrant colors in the movie occur during an escapist dream sequence- one I could have done without. Aside from this the only color is in their blood-shot eyes, Cohen's flamboyant clothes, and the blood.

You didn't think I would write a review without talking about the blood did you? There was a lot of this, making it well worthy of its R rating. The blood was very cartoony, but if you're squeamish, you should probably steer clear. The movie combines some wonderful talents we're already familiar with (Depp, Rickman, Carter, Burton, etc) and some very promising rising stars (Wisener, Bower, Sanders). If you can handle the violence, see the movie. If you can't, get the soundtrack. It's not quite the same, but you'll still enjoy it.


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