In the week that will most likely end with Anne Hathaway winning undeserved Oscar for Les Mis, I'm reminded of female performance in musical that was actually snubbed by the dearest Academy - Helena Bonham Carter's splendid work as Mrs. Lovett in Tim Burton's last great picture - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Though both Johnny Depp and Carter were nominated for Golden Globes that year, it was only Depp who won the Globe and received Academy Award nomination. Furthermore Carter was snubbed by both SAG and BAFTA, which is astonishing since she is one of their most well known and revered English Roses.
As much as I like Cate Blanchett I feel Bonham Carter was more deserving with her work here for Best Actress in Supporting role (if we consider her supporting) spot that Cate's performance in hugely overrated I'm not There took. Blanchett herself was actually better this year in Elizabeth - Golden Age for which she also received Oscar nomination. What's the harm in giving her one and rewarding Carter at least with that? I think she was actually a co-lead in Sweeney and in this case she was far more deserving than - let me use this timeless word again - overrated Ellen Page for Juno.
Of course I'm not suggesting Carter should have won over Swinton or Cotillard. But she was certainly worthy of nomination and in a weaker year, for example if she was nominated now, of a win. As great as Depp was in this movie, for me it was Bonham Carter that was the heart of it. Bleeding, singing, aching heart. It helps that Lovett's character is the most interesting in the musical - she is not easy to categorize. She is both funny and tragic, conniving and caring and pushed to the limits because of the best - or in the case of the film's characters - worst - thing that can happen to us: love.
Lovett was in love with the barber back when he was a married man. Then, after many years, he returns, having lost his wife and child, as Sweeney Todd. Lovett kept his razors all those years because she loved him. It's a tragic story because the barber is obsessed with revenge, he is so numbed and destroyed by it that he can't love her back. Even in Lovett's colorful, surprisingly conventional fantasy world he is numbed and disinterested in her and everything that happens around them. She knows the truth, that he will never let go of his vengeance and her knowledge of that is so piercing it even gets through to her dreams.
In reality their relationship borders on sadistic as Todd threatens her life multiple times - Lovett is a match for him though, as after years of loneliness and poverty she has nothing left to lose. In fact, the only time there is fear in her eyes is not when she is scared she will lose her life, it's when she is scared being on the verge of losing Todd's affection when he finds out what she did to make it possible for them to be together.
Lovett is a bit of a mother figure to Todd as well - she is the one who has to do the thinking, take care of Todd and clean up his mess. He impulsively kills people yet she finds out a way for them to get away with the murder. Disturbing way? Yes. The way that fits the brutal reality of the movie? Yes. She is clearly a very smart, resourceful woman, a survivor even, who in the end gets lost because she loved one man too much and couldn't let go, even when he returned merely a shade of his past self.
I'm no music expert but I thought Carter did a wonderful job singing in this one. Even in something as mediocre as Les Mis her voice and talent made the scenes she was in worth seeing. And here she had infinitely better material to work with. She underwent extensive vocal lessons and studied baking in preparation for
her role. She clearly fell in love with her character and though I'm
sure the way she sings isn't technically brilliant, she certainly poured
her heart out.
Though I've seen the majority of Carter's extensive body of work, she completely disappeared into Mrs. Lovett here. Every smirk, every glance, every look of horror in her eyes - it all builds an unforgettable character. Her acting is at its best in her final scenes where she chooses the love for Todd over the young boy she cares for and when she completely succumbs to the evil that surrounds her.
Her last scene is truly heartbreaking - observe the smile on her face as she dances with Todd, truly believing he has forgiven her and he is finally in love with her. All of the deaths in the movie are either grotesque or poetic. Hers was the only one that was truly horrifying as it was cruel - she was so blinded by the love, driven to insanity by it and in the end she was murdered by the very man she cherished the most.
Bonham Carter's work here is among her finest performances - she has this ability to shine in her films, even if her characters don't have that much screen time - her heartbreaking work in Big Fish, her beautiful performance in Frankenstein, her subtle and gentle work in The King's Speech. She is always memorable on screen and her work in Sweeney Todd should have received much more award love than it did. But then again, it's true for most of her incredible performances.