Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cutting straight to the song: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street



In recent years, Tim Burton’s directorial skill seems to have faded since his glory days of Beetle Juice and Edward Scissorhands. 1999’s Sleepy Hollow suffered from Hollywood bloat and the mildly demented Charlie and Chocolate Factory (2005) lacked the charm of the original, so I had my doubts about Sweeney Todd, the sixth collaboration between the director and Johnny Depp. A musical in which Depp sings? And what about the obvious nepotism of Burton giving his girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter the lead as Mrs. Lovett?

By sticking to his most basic themes, however, Burton has done something special with Sweeney. He made an unremittingly bleak bloodfest that delights in its grungy vision of lower-class Victorian England. The movie is so dark, it’s cheerfully amoral, and a pleasant return to form for Depp after so many years flopping his arms around as flakey PG-13 Captain Jack Sparrow.

Now Depp appears on a ship at night as it docks at London. When his friend Anthony (Jame Campbell Bower) tries to speak with him, Todd can only mutter “My mind is far from easy” before abruptly walking down some dark alley. In the grand tradition of Kill Bill, Todd has revenge on his mind. 15 years before, Sweeney originally called himself the “naïve” Benjamin Barker, a simple barber and happy family man. Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) took a shine to Benjamin’s wife Lucy, so the Judge arrested Barker and sent him off to prison in Australia. The Barkers also had a daughter Johanna that Judge Turpin now keeps trapped in an upstairs bedroom in his brownstone. Basically, the plot set-up is ridiculously melodramatic, but I’ve always been a big fan of Alan Rickman, who often appears in Harry Potter movies. He’s the only likable teacher of Hogwarts, and he brings a nice mixture of dignity and contempt to any role, even when he’s singing in a barber chair.

At any rate, the newly christened Sweeney Todd can only brood on his revenge, but he happens upon his old landlord Mrs. Lovett (Carter) in her struggling meat pie business of Fleet Street. Like Todd, Mrs. Lovett suffers from the same malnourished look—blackened eyes, scraggly hair--but she gamely tries to bake pies without too many cockroaches in them. She also has kept his old razors tucked away in the floorboards of his old flat. Todd greets these razors like old friends, and sings a song welcoming them back into his life.

So what about the singing? Most of the time, the songs do not interfere overly much with the vision of the film. For one thing, Stephen Sondheim, the songwriter of the original Broadway musical, was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s premier soundtrack writer, Bernard Herrmann, so he had good influences. The songs are cut short and adapted to the screen well, unlike the film treatment of “The Producers” where there was little effort to tone down the exaggerated stage performances. Also Burton found ways to play off the operatic tendencies of the original for comic effect. For instance, when Todd realizes that he can wreak his revenge on all of male London by slicing their throats instead of shaving them, he breaks into song about the “vermin of the world . . welcome to the grave. How about a shave?” Just when he gets most carried away, however, Mrs. Lovett brings him down to earth by saying, “That’s all very good, but what about him?” And she points to his first corpse awkwardly left in a trunk. I could picture Helena Bonhan Carter puncturing Burton’s dreaminess in this matter-of-fact manner back at home after a day’s shoot.

By the time Todd and Mrs. Lovett set up a successful business selling human flesh as meat pies, it seemed a logical consequence of the overpopulation and overcrowding of lower class nineteenth century London. And even though the two get their just desserts, I liked the film best when they reveled in their wicked ways. As Mrs. Lovett fantasizes of a happy future with Todd, they look like two pasty-faced Tim Burton moppets, two Edward Scissorhands looking incongruous on the British shore. In short, the perfect couple.

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