Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sweeney Todd

Finally! After being disappointed by movies who don't quite live up to their press, a film that meets and even exceeds critical hype! The gothically macabre story of Sweeney Todd was made for the gifted yet gruesome talents of Tim Burton. Along with co-conspirators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Burton puts his indelible stamp on the long-time legend of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Sweeney Todd first appeared in literature in the mid 1800s and had inspired at least 3 movies (1926, 1928, 1936) and a play by Christopher Bond (1973). Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler adapted Bond's play into a hit musical in 1979. Almost 30 years later, Burton gives us this magnificent interpretation of the musical--which retains the theatricality of the stage version but with the camera's flexibility and ability for intimacy.

The film opens with Benjamin Barker's (now "Sweeney Todd") return to London after a fifteen year long false imprisonment by a pervertedly venal judge (Alan Rickman). But the city Barker returns to is not the one he left. This is a dark, bleak, grim city--so sings Sweeney:

There's a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.
Sooty and gritty, smoky and overcast. Darker than the circles under Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) eyes. As dark as the murderous rage in the eyes of the tortured and tormented Sweeney Todd. The tragic tale of this man so filled with vengeance that he can't even see straight by turns ghastly and grisly--with a bit of gallows humor thrown in.

And blood. A lot of blood. Too much for my squeamish, squirming tastes. But Burton colors his blood a bright McDonald's rooftop red (so that it looks more like paint than a vital bodily fluid)--ostensibly to preserve the sense of theatrics. Blood depicted as its natural maroon shade would be difficult to stomach in the series of over-the-top throat slittings that occur in the movie. Still, it was plenty realistic for me--I assiduously avoided looking at the screen during the more graphic scenes.

Depp is a marvel and whoever says his singing isn't up to par is dead wrong. He growls and grimaces and yet conveys his deep anguish for the wife and child lost to him. Helena Bonham Carter provides a grounded yet delightfully delusional Mrs. Lovett. Their duet in the ballad "My Friends" is exquisite. And there's a great comic turn by Sacha Baron Cohen who seems to be channeling the cousin of Jean Girard, his snooty French NASCAR driver in Talladega Nights, in his portrayal of competing barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli. Even when it's too gruesome to look at, Sweeney Todd is amazing to watch with gorgeous cinematography, makeup, costumes, sets, etc.

It will be interesting to see what award season holds for Sweeney. To my mind it outdoes the critical competition of Atonement or There Will Be Blood. The only other movie I've seen recently that has lived up to reviewer ravings is No Country for Old Men. And while I was completely mesmerized by the Coen Brothers coming back to form, I can appreciate Tim Burton and Company at their best as well.

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