Monday, November 29, 2010

Slice And Dice Burton's Yet Another Musical: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street!

The Good: Decent (if simple) plot and characters, Acting, Music, Direction
The Bad: Many typical Burton (and musical) conceits, Resolution
The Basics: Tim Burton returns with another musical, this time with much blood and music, but still with the same acting troupe and general plot.

I have something of a love-don't care relationship with the works of Tim Burton. Unlike some directors, I see that Tim Burton obtained his status as the outsider-insider director in Hollywood today from his talent. He's a creative guy and I love his early works. I mean, he was a creative guy and now he just rehashes. Tim Burton's last few works have not fared well in my reviews for a few simple reasons; he has taken on a fairly regular troupe and abandoned much of his creativity for a rather repetitive sense of what works. His visual style has slowly become less audacious and more standard and the stories he has told lately have either been adaptations of works of others or simple retelling of his earlier successful works (Corpse Bride, I'm looking at you!).

Enter Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, Tim Burton's cinematic expression of John Logan's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical. I've not seen the musical, though I did enjoy the Kevin Smith adaptation of it in Jersey Girl. But seeing that the adaptation of the play was done by the guy who wrote the script that sunk the Star Trek film franchise and was going to be directed by a talented man whose last films I did not enjoy staring the same stars he had in his last two films, I decided to keep my expectations somewhat low.

Fortunately, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street came in well above my expectations. This musical is dark, bloody and entertaining and that's what I needed when I sat down to watch it.

Benjamin Barker is a London gentleman married to Lucy and the proud father to Joanna. When the local judge, arguably a pedophile with the most skewed moral compass of anyone in the film, Judge Turpin, sets his sights on ruining Barker and taking Lucy, he easily manages to convict Benjamin and get him imprisoned. Free to seduce Lucy, Turpin finds his luck there is not much better and when she rejects his advances, she is taken out. With Benjamin locked away, the orphaned Joanna falls into Turpin's care as his ward and Barker stews in his cell. After fifteen years of incarceration, he escapes his dank cell.

It is at this point that he returns to London under the assumed name and manic personality of Sweeney Todd, a barber by trade. He sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pie Shop and he begins to avenge Benjamin. Luring his old enemies in for haircuts, Sweeney Todd begins a murder spree that is made easy because his downstairs neighbor is able to make use of the bodies. Lovett and Todd begin a crazy partnership and eccentric friendship that begins a bloodbath that revitalizes Lovett's business. As the bodycount rises, Todd begins to lose the last shreds of sanity he had as he kills a path toward Turpin and his final vengeance.

All the while singing. And with a surprise ending. Only it's not a surprise ending, but the singing certainly is singing! Far more straightforward a musical than, say, "Corpse Bride" most of the spoken dialogue is actually sung and truth be told some of the tunes are catchy. The film moves along at a pretty decent clip through the songs and it is anything but troubling that there are songs instead of speaking.

Why? The look of the film. Tim Burton's construction of Victorian London is dark and Burtonesque in a very Sleepy Hollow way. The rooms are large, but their darkness carries a rather claustrophobic feeling with them, so whenever the camera pulls away from the characters, the viewer still feels trapped. Instead of a generic dark quality, Burton infuses the sets and style of the barber shop/meat pie shop with a very compelling and unsettling sense to it. The setting is so unsettling - especially when combined with the gore - that the characters singing instead of speaking only enhances the mood. In fact, the film truly begins to work as a musical only when Sweeney Todd (as opposed to Benjamin) enters and takes up residence in the barber shop.

And, oh my, is there blood. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street earns its R rating, though the gore is nothing most adults cannot handle. It's not so much quality gore as it is quantity. One has to admire the work ethic of Todd as he begins to carve his way through the London enemies of Benjamin Barker! But the film is well-centered on the emotions that guide the off-centered anti-hero.

Sweeney Todd is a man out for revenge. He wants Judge Turpin dead and, one supposes, he would like his daughter back. Todd's quest becomes more and more disturbing, not for the carnage as much as the character twists. As Todd racks up a body count, he begins to lose sight of his goal and the killing becomes more indiscriminate. Todd sinks into a madness that loses sight of the love for his daughter and the desire to save her and becomes about loving the killing . . . with the occasional reminder that Judge Turpin is the goal victim.

And Mrs. Lovett, she's just crazy, played with bug-eyed glee by Helena Bonham Carter. Here is where Tim Burton falls down some with his new thrust of adaptations as opposed to his original works; by reusing many of the same performers in plots that are surreal, the viewer becomes accustomed to them and begins to look closer at the other characters. As a result, the "big surprise" at the end is not a big surprise and I mention this following mentioning Helena Bonham Carter because viewers have seen pretty much the same thing but from her in previous films.

Helena Bonham Carter plays what is ultimately a sidekick role as Lovett. She delivers many of the best lines, but her character is virtually a collection of lines as opposed to genuine character traits and Carter makes the most of it. To her credit, she plays creepy very well and it is unsettling to watch her and director Tim Burton makes the most of capturing her body language quirks.

It is worth noting that Alan Rickman plays Judge Turpin and it ought not to surprise anyone that he is able to sing and emote while doing it. Rickman has a long resume and I've enjoyed him in Dogma and my second-favorite Christmas film of all time (the first being Batman Returns!) Love Actually. In Love Actually, he plays an understated villain-only-in-a-moral sense (he has a doting wife and he spends much of the film not-really avoiding the advances of his secretary) and he does that masterfully. In Sweeney Todd, he is perfectly, unredeemingly villainous and it's wonderful to see how convincingly he can pull it off. With a lust he kept understated in Love Actually, Rickman takes over-the-top to embody Turpin's twisted desire for Johanna and he makes the viewer believe he is truly that depraved. He steals every scene he is in.

Newcomer Jayne Wisener does well as the fifteen year-old Johanna holding her own opposite Rickman's Turpin. She comes to the film with an air of confidence that works for her and makes one believe that she will do more (and well) in the future. Of course, by virtue of appearing in one Tim Burton film, she's pretty much guaranteed a chance at another!

But it is Johnny Depp who is charged with captivating the audience and holding them and yes, he succeeds. Depp has a difficult role to convince viewers like me of his ability in this particular role because of how distinctive he was as Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp created a cultural icon over three films as Sparrow so most viewers will know going into Sweeney Todd that he can play crazy and slightly off-center. Here is where the singing helps. Almost immediately, Depp uses his vocal presentation and facial expressions to let the audience know that Todd is a much more menacing character than Sparrow, no benign craziness here! And this is a performance that stands alone as one of Depp's most distinctive and original. Indeed, the only moment I was drawn out of the film was when Todd first starts using his straight razor; something about Depp with a sharp implement at the tip of his fingers seemed familiar! But it was thoroughly welcome and Depp soon dissipates any air that his celebrity might have to cloud his actual performance as Sweeney Todd.

I find it surprising that so many people seem surprised Depp can sing; he performed songs for Corpse Bride adequately, though in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, he is even more vocally refined. As far as musicals go, this one is generally decent.

And bloody. Have I mentioned that yet? Lots of blood. Necessary for the plot, sure! Only because the plot is so twisted. Actually one of the aspects I enjoyed about the film is that while Sweeney Todd degenerates fully into madness and begins to kill without much attention to the blood and death, director Tim Burton does not become casual about it. As a result, all of the throat-slashings are unsettling and that helps make the film worthwhile.

Even so, the film is ideal for fans of musicals and horror more than straightforward drama fans, though the character journey of Sweeney Todd is compelling and dark. This is definitely not for children and adults with a low tolerance for blood are likely not to enjoy this film all that much.

For other works by Tim Burton, please check out my reviews of:
Alice In Wonderland
Big Fish
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Batman Returns
Edward Scissorhands


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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