Geek Smithology

February 4, 2008

Review – Sweeney Todd (The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)

Filed under: Sight by Nathan @ 5:50 pm

todd12.jpgSome auteur directors find a muse and form long lasting relationships. Think Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio. Think John Waters and Divine. Think Kenneth Branagh and Kenneth Branagh. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fruitful pairing than Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, the team that brought us such masterpieces as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Add to that list Sweeney Todd, a surreal and captivating musical so far removed from the usual fare as to be almost subversive. Like Moulin Rouge, not Hairspray.

The story begins as Benjamin Parker (Depp) arrives in London after 15 years in exile. As a younger man, he was arrested under false pretenses by a jealous judge (Alan Rickman) who covets his wife. Upon looking up his former home on Fleet Street, he meets Ms. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a lovely young lady who has set up shop selling the worst pies in London. Parker takes the name Sweeney Todd and makes his name as a barber after a scene that involves accusing a local hairdresser (A pitch-perfect Sacha Baron Cohen who proves he’s bigger than Borat) of peddling a false hair growth tonic based on bodily functions. Soon after, Todd finds he has a taste for murder and decides that the whole world deserves to die. Ms. Lovett capitalizes by turning victims into pies and soon she is the toast of London. Finally, in a melange of mistaken identity, gross immorality, and true love, Todd’s blood thirst proves his undoing and the demon proves as deserving of death as any of his opponents.

sweeneytodd.gifThe cinematography is unmistakably Burton – view any frame from the film and you could identify its maker. Other signatures are there: Todd has hair that seems to be a mix between Edward Scissorhands and Robert Smith, while Ms. Lovett has the pallid complexion of a corpse (but a hot corpse.) The sets are simultaneously part of and beyond the theater tradition, with stage like intimacy in some scenes and expansive vistas in others. There is a nice flash-forward that changes the locations, but proves Todd to be a most morose madman. The murders themselves are lurid, fetishistic, and unsettling in a way that few films attain. It would seems that they would become mundane through sheer repetition, but they’re rough, gory, and plausible — I flinched just about every time a razor came onscreen.

Unlike too many musicals these days, the songs aren’t merely hooks for a soundtrack[1][2], but integral and intricate: there are many duets with overlapping sections of opposing exposition, such as when Todd is singing of his dead wife while Ms. Lovett declares her obvious affections. It’s hard to give Depp credit merely for singing his own songs in the film, he would have been excoriated in the lip-sync hating press, but he deserves kudos for being an excellent vocalist. He has a recognizable sound, as opposed to the generic “male voice singing in key” albatross around the neck of the music industry[3].

The experience of Sweeney Todd is captivating and gratifying, and will wash the rancid stool taste of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from your mouth. The multitudes of Burton lovers will pronounce it another masterpiece, while the hoi polloi of haters will denounce it as more of the same. Both groups are right, and you should get out and see it.

five star

[1] Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
[2] Admission: I bought the soundtrack. It’s excellent.
[3] Although he does remind me of Ewan MacGregor’s delivery in Moulin Rouge, and that’s a compliment.

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