Monday, November 21, 2011

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

By Sati. Monday, November 21, 2011 , , , , , , , ,
96/100 (116 min, 2007)
Plot: The infamous story of Benjamin Barker, a.k.a Sweeney Todd, who sets up a barber shop down in London which is the basis for a sinister partnership with his fellow tenant, Mrs. Lovett. Based on the hit Broadway musical.
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: John Logan (screenplay), Stephen Sondheim (musical)
Stars: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman


"No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks."
— Mary Shelley

“These are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett and desperate measures are called for... “

(spoilers!)
London, Victorian times. Rain falling from the sky, the drops changing into blood, falling into sewage surrounded by filth and rats. That is how Tim Burton's last true masterpiece “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” opens. After 25 years in development, constant casting changes, passing the material from one director to another, Burton finally managed to shot the movie that is both fascinating and horrifying. Opening titles present the message of the story – the evil, the poison, the filth spreads, infects everything it touches. It is unavoidable and once pure is corrupted there simply is no going back.
The tale is that of Benjamin Barker, the talented barbed who once had beloved wife Lucy and their little daughter Johanna. But there was an evil man – judge Turpin, who desired Lucy. He thought of a devious plot, put Barker in jail, raped Lucy and kidnapped Johanna and was raising her ever since. But one day Barker escapes jail and gets back to London, seeking his revenge. He stays in his old apartment over Mrs. Lovett's pie shop. Mrs. Lovett soon becomes his accomplice in his murderous proceedings...

I still can't figure out whether or not Burton did it intentionally but the tale of revenge became something much more devious and larger – the tale of evil itself. Evil that lurks practically everywhere in the story – in Mrs. Lovett feeble attempts at making Todd fall in love with her and going as far as lying horribly and making pies out of people, the Judge having obvious perverse intentions for young Johanna, Pirelli blackmailing Todd...The movie even opens with the song which lyrics say “There's a hole in the world like a great black pit, / And the vermin of the world inhabit it, / And its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit, / And it goes by the name of London. At the top of the hole sit a privileged few / Making mock of the vermin of the lower zoo. Turning beauty into filth and greed.” almost suggesting that in the place like that, nothing good can survive.
The most puzzling character and director's intentions for him as puzzling as he is - is Todd. Because of how the character is written in the movie it's truly hard to treat him other than as psychopathic maniac than the father and husband who tries to avenge his family and himself. Why? Because as soon as Todd finally kills the judge, he is ready to kill again. He doesn't even get to lie down his razor and he is ready for another of his kills. There are also some scraps of depth left in the movie, as if somebody rewrote the script and forgot about it – the scene were Todd kills all of his customers, but one – the one who came with his wife and kids who sit in the corner of the room as Todd shaves him. Instead of cutting his throat, Todd let's him go. But why? He has no mercy for anyone, he comes close to killing Lovett in rage at one point in the movie, although she helps him so much, why on Earth would he care about some random family? It's not even the case of progression of madness – Todd's insanity is in the same stage in the end of the film as it was in the beginning – he is consistently barking mad, as Mrs. Lovett puts it.
Johnny Depp does wonders with his unevenly written character – not only is he dangerous and charismatic, he does brilliant singing job, despite not having too good voice for it. Arrangements are great and hid all of Depp voice's shortcoming. There are moments in the movie where he is nearly a rock star – especially passionate “Epiphany” where he runs around the streets of London with fury, looking for throats to cut, he yells for his daughter and falls on his knees in despair. In his sixth collaboration with Tim Burton Depp managed to do something new – he is not adorable weirdo, he is a dangerous psychopath armed with razors. There is nothing from sweet and kind Edward Scissorhands or clumsy and noble Ichabod Crane left here. There is only madness and sharp blades.
Todd is greatly aided by Mrs. Lovett – the owner of the house him and his family lived in all these years ago. Lovett kept his silver razorblades all those years – she has been in love with Todd for many years and that's why she jumps on board so fast when he tells her his plans. Lovett is extremely tragic character – when she hands Todd his razors he looks at them as if they were his lovers, sings to them sweetly, looks at them, almost with perverse desire. Lovett just lurks behind him trying to grasp to any passion he has in him in this moment. Todd dreams of revenge, Lovett dreams of love – in the movie's most beautifully arranged scene we get to see what's inside her head – she dreams of having family, love and Todd for her husband. Everything in her fantasy is different than in real world – her clothes are pretty and colorful, the sky is blue and filled with fluffy, dreamy, white clouds. At one point of the movie young boy, Toby, is taken under her wing. She really cares for him but is willing to kill him for her love for Todd. That love, the toxic affection she has for this psychopath, pushes her further and further down the rabbit hole of insanity into her tragic doom – being brutally murdered by the man she was willing to do anything for.
Helena Bonham Carter delivers the best performance out of entire cast here – she is heartbreaking, hilarious and simply unforgettable. She is also the best singer in ensemble – her sweet voice provides interesting contrast for Depp's harsh vocals. Apparently she had excessive vocal training in preparation for the movie and she also...studied baking for the role.

The movie focuses the most on these two characters but as with all Burton's films there are lots of other players in this game of pies and razorblades – there is a cruel judge played by Alan Rickman, who always does splendid job playing villains. He is a fair match for Todd, being completely devoid of compassion and decency. When showing the character's depravity, Burton sneaks in subtle visual clues - a clear reference to peep hole scenes in "Psycho". Rickman and Depp have wonderful musical number together - “Pretty Women” - in its ending including one of the most thrilling moments of any Tim Burton's movie. There are two more actors from “Harry Potter” franchise – Timothy Spall, almost like Wormtail in “Half-Blood Prince” always whispering into Rickman's ear – Spall is really fantastic in roles like this and he fits Burton's universe splendidly. There is also Jaime Campbell Bower in a very annoying performance – he plays Anthony, a boy who falls in love with Johanna, Todd's daughter. The story is the weakest link in the movie, but it was necessary – in the dark tale like that the love story between Anthony and Johanna provides a little light in the overwhelming pitch black surroundings.
There is also Sasha Baron Cohen, mostly known for his comedy adventurous as Borat, Bruno or Ali G as eccentric barber Pirelli. His presence in the film adds a lot of humor and he does great job – much like Steve Buscemi in “Big Fish” he mostly provides comic relief and a vivid distraction from main story. The true revelation is young Ed Sanders as Toby who is simply magnificent both in his singing and acting – he gets to portray love, persistence, and in the end madness, as being around Todd and Lovett leaves its stain on him.

I love symbols in this movie – all mad characters have tired eyes – bruises under them and extremely pale skin. Toby's skin changes into face like that as soon as he falls to insanity. There are also numerous reflections of Todd and Lovett both in broken mirrors and razorblades – they do not see reality, only their twisted worlds and what they perceive to be truth. Also – only three characters in the movie have bright hair – Lucy, Johanna and Anthony – the only three innocent people in this whole story. The best example for this is Toby – who has bright blond wig on stage, suggesting he is just an innocent boy. But then the wig goes off and his hair are as black as raven. He then proves to be addicted from gin and on his way to be as rotten as others present at Mrs. Lovett's establishment.
There is also a great deal of symbolism in how the protagonists die – what kills them is the thing they used to kill others. Mrs. Lovett is thrown into her owen and baked alive, just like the meat of the victims she used to make her pies. Todd dies from razor, with which Toby cuts his throat. In the final moments, Todd holds his beloved Lucy in his arms – the scene plays out with them creating a bloody pieta, in this scene the symbol for the end of revenge and the beginning of whatever peace can be born out of blood and suffering.

As usual with Burton's movies the visual side is absolutely mesmerizing – from the dirt and filth of rotting London to the colorful flashbacks and dream sequences, everything is either pumping with misery or joy. The costumes and setting are planned out perfectly – the chair of death Todd uses throughout the film was actually designed by Burton himself. Sacha Baron Cohen was involved in creating Pirelli's costume and Alan Rickman's response to suggestion that judge Turpin doesn't care about his appearance was wearing stained clothes. The songs are extremely catchy – it is only the second time that when it comes to Tim Burton's film Danny Elfman was not involved in creating the music. Stephan Sondheim, the author of the musical, did it – the actors obviously aren't wonderful singers but they do splendid job. From hilarious “The Worst Pies in London” vigorously sang by Helena Bonham Carter through amusing and eccentric“The Contest” to “The Little Priest” - the sequence that includes bravura waltz by Depp and Bonham Carter, not only are the lyrics great but the execution stuns viewers with its creativity, many times. These sequences are the most wonderful work Burton did since “Sleepy Hallow”.
The movie is a true danse macabre – the morbid humor is everywhere and the blood gushes profoundly from cut throats. “Sweeney Todd” was the first acclaimed movie Burton made since “Ed Wood”. With cast like that and material that has been successful for years, based on one of the most well known urban legends in England, it was really hard not to make wonderful film. But it is perhaps the darkest movie Burton ever made – it's a true tragedy for most of the characters and even if the gravity of death is brought down to the level of meat pies - the sadness still hides beneath all the laughs and the fascinating cover of grotesque.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific review! Very VERY well written, and you have definitely analyzed it intellectually. I have seen this film 5 times, and now I am realizing how to does show hate itself. The lyrics are deep and it is definitely a brilliant film.

    See my review of it: http://filmmasterjournal.blogspot.com/2011/07/sweeney-todd-demon-barber-of-fleet.html

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