by Mel Valentin
Tim Burtonís ("Sleepy Hollow," "Ed Wood," "Edward Scissorhands") adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheelerís 1979 Broadway musical, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is gory, graphic, grisly, gruesome Grand Guignol. In case youíre wondering, thatís meant as the highest praise for Burton, whose most recent efforts, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Big Fish," and "Planet of the Apes," were defined by bloated budgets, intricate, often extravagant, visual design, and middling, muddled storytelling, with one exception, Burtonís return to stop-motion animation, "Corpse Bride." "Sweeney Todd" fits Burtonís gothic-by-way-of-Hammer-Studios sensibilities almost perfectly. Production design, cinematography, costumes, acting, and direction work in sync to create a perfectly realized, highly stylized Victorian England where the closest shave of all might just be your last.Sweeney Todd opens with a shot that echoes back almost a century to Nosferatu, F.W. Murnauís unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stokerís Dracula: a ship sails into the mist-shrouded Thames at night transporting Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), back after fifteen years in a penal colony in Australia and Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), a young man eager to make his name and fortune in London. Traveling under the name Sweeney Todd, Barker has returned to England to exact revenge on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and Turpinís right-hand henchman, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). Turpin and Bamford are responsible for Barkerís imprisonment and exile to Australia. Turpin wanted Barkerís wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), and their infant daughter, Johanna, for himself.
"Burton's best film? Maybe, just maybe."
Sweeney Todd heads for Fleet Street, the working class section of London where he hopes to ply his trade as a barber again while planning his revenge on Judge Turpin. His barbershop, however, has remained unoccupied since his abrupt departure. The new owner, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), runs a faltering shop on the ground floor that specializes in meat pies. Almost immediately, Mrs. Lovett recognizes Toddís true identity, but decides to keep his identity a secret and allow Todd to reopen his barbershop above her store. Before he can proceed further with his plans for revenge, however, Todd has to best Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), a colorful celebrity barber, in a competition. Todd also learns that Judge Turpin has made Toddís daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), his ward. Turpin plans on marrying her.
Circumstances inevitably force Todd postpone his plans for revenge. Postponing his plans, however, turns Todd murderous, but heís no monster, or if he is, heís made a monster by circumstance and not by choice. Turpin is the real monster in Sweeney Todd. He abuses his power to obtain what he wants, and in his decision to marry the fifteen-year old Johanna, becomes unredeemable. Todd is sympathetic up to and including the first murder, made again, not by choice, but by circumstance. Itís when he decides to turn his hatred and desire for revenge from Judge Turpin to strangers that he becomes a cold-blooded killer. Ever the businesswoman, Mrs. Lovett sees an opportunity in all the bodies piling up in her basement: fresh, tasty meat pies. With Pirelliís former assistant, Toby (Ed Sanders), on tap to help, Todd and Mrs. Lovett enter into a lucrative relationship.
Character wise, Toddís fatal flaw, his inability to forgive, his inability to forget (as the tagline reminds us), prohibits him from setting aside his desire for revenge and find solace in a romantic relationship with Mrs. Lovett, with Toby as stand-in child. Toddís arc, of course, leads inevitably toward more tragedy (i.e., death and destruction). Burton conveys Toddís arc economically, with a maximum of pathos, but with a minimum of sentiment. Itís also delivered with plenty of throat slitting and blood spilling, as befits the subtitle, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As bloody as Sweeney Todd is, and you should be prepared for lots of blood, even if it resembles thick red paint, Hammer Studios-style than the crimson red weíve come to expect from contemporary films, itís also filled with blackly comic moments, no more so than during a fantasy sequence as Mrs. Lovettís imagines a future with Todd that doesnít include throat slitting, blood spilling, or meat pie making.
Sweeny Todd is nothing if not old school. Characters express themselves primarily through singing, with spoken dialogue a distant second. With so little spoken dialogue, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter have to work overtime to sing Sondheimís lyrics. Fact is, Depp and Carter arenít trained in musical theater, so they deserve credit for effort, but that only translates to above average marks for their performances. Depp keeps well within his limited range, growling and barking out his lines. Carter doesnít so much bark as bite through her lines with her high-pitched voice. Among the supporting cast, Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony Hope fares best. And thatís not saying anything about Sondheimís music and lyrics, which are uniformly strong (no surprise there), even as or especially when Todd begins his killing spree.With Burtonís Gothic-by-way-of-Hammer-Studios sensibilities matched by Dante Ferrettiís ("The Black Dahlia," "The Aviator," "Cold Mountain," "Gangs of New York," "Titus," "Kundun") production design and Dariusz Wolskiís cinematography, "Sweeney Todd" is nothing if not visually arresting, even during the more ghoulish moments. With a tautly paced screenplay, courtesy of John Logan ("Gladiator"), based on Sondheimís musical, and riveting performances all around, "Sweeney Todd" may just be Burtonís best film, if by best we mean most cohesive, coherent, compelling told film. And yes that means Oscar will likely reward Burton and collaborators with nominations in multiple categories come February.
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originally posted: 12/21/07 13:00:00