Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd Review

Tim Burton is one of those directors who I am always curious to see what comes out of him next. His newest movie, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a unique entry from him as it is based on the Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name. I went in with absolutely no expectations, since I am only vaguely familiar with the musical itself and have never heard a song from it at all. So fortunately I was able to take everything in without any preconceived notion about what the movie should be.

Despite a few small issues, Sweeney Todd is one of Burton's best movies and succeeds on a number of levels. The story follows Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) as he returns to London after an exile of nearly 15 years. What happened is never fully explained, only to say that Todd, then Benjamin Barker, was sent away on trumped up charges so that Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) could take Barker's beautiful wife Lucy and their daughter away from him. Upon Todd's return, he meets up with the equally disturbed Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who happens to have quite an infatuation with Todd and informs him that his wife poisoned herself shortly after escaping Turpin and that his daughter, Joanna is now living under guard of Turpin himself.

Upon hearing the news that his beloved is now dead, his thoughts only move to one thing, and that is to exacting revenge upon Turpin for ruining his life. He then sets up a barber shop where he rarely gives actual haircuts but murders most of the customers to be served in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.

Burton crafts an incredible interpretation of London that reflects the craziness of both Todd and Lovett. Their pale, darkened eyed complexion within their decrepit shops is juxtaposed against the more flesh-colored and colorful people around them. While the world is still ultimately a dark and unfriendly place, the external world that Todd and Lovett do not inhabit is much more of a welcoming place than the place in which they reside. The resulting atmosphere is incredibly effective in crafting a disturbing mood throughout the length of the film.

Depp and Carter in particular give excellent performances highlighting the specific issues troubling their individual characters. Rickman is equally disturbing as the fiendish Judge Turpin, a man whose moral code seems to be blinded by his own carnal desires.

What Depp, with the help of Burton, does is craft a character who is so blinded by his lust for revenge, he fails to see what it is doing to his life. Despite having the knowledge that his daughter is alive, he still seems to be more concerned with taking lives than he is with trying to start a new one for himself. Carter's Mrs. Lovett is equally blinded by her infatuation with Todd that she is willing to do things for him that she probably wouldn't do if he was not around. Despite the fact that Todd gives her very little reason to support him, she is wrapped up in him nonetheless.

The music is also excellent. The majority of the movie is sung, not spoken, and while Depp and Carter might not have the most beautiful singing voices, they are definitely sufficient and the way they sing is most certainly in line with the types of characters they are portraying. A few of Sondheim's numbers sound a little dated, but ultimately they are all catchy, intense songs that definitely help to create a mood for the film.

The issues that I had were rather minor. I was rather curious as to why Barker/Todd was taken away to start with and how he ended up on a ship back to England. I suppose we can assume that he escaped from prison and attempted to swim away, but this is never fully explained. Also, I was curious to know about what happens to a few characters once the movie ends, but given the movie is about the journey of Sweeney Todd, I can understand why the choice was made to end it where it did. People can come to their own conclusions about the other, more ancillary characters.

Also, in a few places it just felt too much like a stage production. There were moments when I realized that this was meant to be seen on stage that was a jarring moment that took me out of the movie. Fortunately, moments like those did not last long and it was very easy to fall back into the world of the dark London.

The film also delivers its R-rating rather strongly. Certainly no one will be complaining over a lack of blood, as the violence is so unflinching, yet it somehow delivers a sense of humor about plenty of the violent situations. The dark humor that is threaded underneath the tragic journey of Sweeney Todd creates an excellent movie that is sure to be recognized come awards season.


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