The Reeler

Reviews

December 21, 2007

Sweeney Todd

Hollywood's most consistent force serves up another slice of gothic heaven

Gothic narratives have known no greater advocate than Tim Burton. While Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street doesn't mess around much with Stephen Sondheim's eerie 1979 stage musical, there's a definite sense that Burton has co-opted it for his own purposes. Few mainstream artists have spun such unflaggingly bleak tales without brightening things up a bit. Burton turns the dark into an enchanted place, where awe and mystery play as great a role as dread.

This skill, and a dogged avoidance of heavy metaphors or editorializing, allows Burton to commercialize a bleak aesthetic. The feat has worked with hardly any lapses over the last 20 years, turning Burton into a greater -- or, at least, more consistent -- Hollywood force than Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and even (gasp!) Michael Bay. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he often pairs up with one of the industry's most revered performers. In Burton’s sixth outing with Johnny Depp, the result is exactly what it looks like. From Edward Scissorhands to Sleepy Hollow, Depp's lead roles in the Burton oeuvre convey the desperation of outsiders incapable of finding a way in. Sweeney feels like the culmination of all of these performances, including Burton’s vision of a Willy Wonka with family issues.

Sweeney has problems with his family, too: He's lost them. The film opens with the once-successful barber (formerly known as Benjamin Barker) returning to his old London abode after years abroad. There he recalls how he lost his wife to a corrupt local judge (Alan Rickman), whose trickery landed Sweeney in exile for a crime he didn’t commit. Arriving at his former place of employment with vengeance on his mind, Sweeney encounters the curiously sinister Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), whose grotesque meat pie shop operates on the ground floor beneath his old barbershop. Taking an instant liking to Sweeney's grim, distant preoccupation, she informs him that his wife is dead and their daughter, Joanna (Jayne Wisener), lives in captivity under the judge's rule. Sweeney's anger kicks up a notch. A few additional complications find the demon barber spiraling into a murderous rage.

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Sweeney Todd is a classic tragedy, light on plot and heavy on melodrama. Style and substance function in unison; there’s no escape from the creepy Victorian setting, no merciful scene where good will overwhelms the frame and saves the day. Aside from three fairly minor characters -- Sweeney's sailor comrade (Jamie Campbell Bower), a young boy that Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett take into their care (Ed Sanders) and Joanna -- most of the movie is spent in the company of lunatics. Sweeney's madness has a hypnotic effect; witnessing his unremitting self-pity and justifications for killing becomes a fascinating spectacle. We're in his world, not our own, and even the grim melodies draw from his psychopathology.

Indeed, as a musical, Sweeney Todd sustains a muted tone. There aren't any toe-tapping dance numbers or epic ensemble pieces to bring down the house (although Sondheim's version does feature an introductory tune sung by the chorus, which Burton excised out of concern for narrative flow). Depp and Bonham-Carter sound like they're humming the minor key soundtrack rather than belting it out, but in this case, their restraint fits the subdued handling of the material. As a rival barber threatening to reveal Sweeney's true identity, Sacha Baron Cohen provides the one upbeat tune in the whole affair, and that pretty much seals his morbid fate.

Sweeney Todd has a screenplay by A-list scribe John Logan, but its riveting pace emerges directly from the music. The barber belts out his melancholia, allowing him the chance to explain his twisted philosophy. In "Epiphany," he declares that "the lives of the wicked should be made brief/For the rest of us death will be a relief/We all deserve to die." And that's all the reassurance he needs before uncompromisingly slitting the throats of unsuspecting patrons with his beloved blade ("At last! My arm is complete again!").

The gore element of the film has been heavily emphasized in the weeks leading up to its release, but while I counted nine splatter-heavy throat slashes (not including one that takes place off-screen), the offending scenes mostly feature bright red liquid flying through the air with cartoon-like velocity. That's a far cry from the sinew-splicing grotesqueness of Hostel and its ilk. You might consider the extensive fluids in Sweeney Todd as more along the lines of the American Psycho for their relentlessly showy representations of rage. In that sense, perhaps Burton allows room for a little metaphor, after all.



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