Thursday, January 3, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd may be the quintessential Tim Burton film. It revels in its darkness, not only in its emotional tone but in its cinematography, and it is starkly gothic. Its two lead actors are long-time staples of Burton films, his wife Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp (as I was watching the film, I kept thinking to myself how far the kid has come from 21 Jump Street. I have no idea why that show kept coming to my mind, because its only relation to the film is Depp). And given the effective but strange rhythms and lyrics of Steven Sondheim's score, Burton had a wealth of resources to work with. Sweeney Todd is brilliantly good and darkly beautiful.

It's also tragic, not heart-tuggingly like Ed Wood, but deep in the soul sad. Benjamin Barker has everything a man could want—a loving wife, a beautiful newborn daughter, and the beginnings of a career as a well-respected barber. But all of that is ripped from him when Judge Turpin (played with a deft combination of menace and despair by Alan Rickman) lusts for the family Barker has and so uses his power to take them away from Barker. The movie opens with Barker returning to London after being in prison for 15 years, taking up the new name Sweeney Todd and vowing revenge. But first he returns to the home above Mrs. Lovett's pie shop that he shared with his family. Mrs. Lovett tells him that his wife took arsenic and his daughter is a ward of the despised Turpin. Now Todd's sole purpose for living is revenge, no matter the cost.

Johnny Depp nails the character of Todd, swinging back and forth between melancholy and murderous intent. And, unexpectedly, he is a more-than-adequate singer. He may never become a music icon, but since there is barely any dialogue in Sweeney Todd, only song lyrics and the occasional spoken word interspersed in the music, Depp has to be able to express himself through that music. And he succeeds brilliantly. Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, who apparently has been hiding a secret love for Barker/Todd and makes several life-altering decisions based on that love. But Todd is truly a man possessed, and so he never sees her devotion. There is one striking portion of the movie where Mrs. Lovett imagines a life with Todd, complete with picnics and seaside cottages. For a few moments the darkness is lifted, except that a close observer will note that Todd and Lovett always remain in some kind of shadow and never change their color schemes—Todd wears black and white, even when it comes to relatively festive clothing and Lovett always wears shades of red. Clearly these dreams are not going to come true.

Nearly all the important characters in the movie cannot act against the forces that move them. Even Judge Turpin is a prisoner of his own desires and self-loathing. Rickman has Turpin wear the mask well, but that mask slips on occasion, especially when he opens up to Todd about his desire for a loving woman, never realizing that his process of obtaining such a woman would forever keep that woman at a distance. Even the hero of the story, if such a story can have a hero, is unable to escape the powers that move him. Anthony, played by Jamie Campbell Bower, is a sailor who accompanies Todd on his return to London who then stumbles upon and falls in love with Todd's imprisoned daughter, Johanna. His every thought, his every move, is predicated on freeing her from her prison and wining her for himself. And even though he becomes a cog in the machinations between Turpin and Todd, he presses on.

The only free actor in the story is young Toby, played by Ed Sanders, who settles in as a worker in Mrs. Lovett's pie shop and manages to escape all the plotting that surrounds it and the barber shop upstairs. Also of note is Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a competitor barber for Todd. His role is altogether too short-lived, but like the rest of the cast, the acting is very strong.

The only thing that drags the movie down for me is the copious amounts of blood. There are moments when it is used for artistic effect and I can accept it—the closing scene is stunning beautiful despite it being covered in blood. But along the way, many people die from having their throats slit, and those scenes are not played down. There are gaping wounds and tremendous amounts of blood everywhere, all showing in part, that nothing will move Todd from the role he has laid out for himself. But it's graphic and not at all humorous (despite the woman behind me in the theatre who giggled at every scene). And for some reason, I never became numb to it, unlike the scenes in the Kill Bill movies. Again, I think this is because of the emotions surrounding the scene: Todd doesn't care what gets in his way; he will be revenged. It's not that people are being killed; in fact they are complete unknowns generally, mere props to the story. It is what they represent, the horror and ugliness of the situation that Todd was put in and how he isn't even trying to escape it, but instead revels in it, comparing himself to those who had power over him. It's an artistic choice, and I understand it; it just got to me after a while.

The final scenes bring all the principles together in the basement of Mrs. Lovett's shop. That by itself should be ominous enough, but it should also be clear that this story is not going to have a happy ending. Sweeney Todd has a compelling conclusion, reflective of the best Shakespearean tragedy. I've already mentioned the closing shot and all its power. It encapsulates human frailty and darkness in a stunning image, and Burton chose it as a symbol that will haunt the movie-goer for a time to come. It also encapsulates the brilliant hand of Burton behind everything in the film.

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