A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

April 10, 2011

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I’d like to dedicate my review tonight to my good friend Rachel, who introduced me to the bizarro world of Stephen Sondheim. I very distinctly remember sitting in her living room listening to the original cast recording of this musical (with Angela Lansbury!) It’s not my favorite Sondheim (that would be Assassins, which we listened to ceaselessly in the AV at that time) but it is an interesting revelation to anybody who assumes that musicals are light-hearted feel-good trifles. Most of what I knew about musicals at the time was from Disney or Andrew Lloyd Webber. I had seen Les Miserables on stage and Phantom of the Opera (with Robert Guillaume in the title role) and, well, I had HEARD of opera but had never actually seen any. This twisted story of murder and vengeance was nothing I had been exposed to before. I recall being shocked that something so bleak and upsetting could be rendered in song. Over time I came to appreciate that Sondheim was the perfect artist to give life to this kind of strangeness. He, with Hugh Wheeler in this particular case, creates intricate and convoluted works that fit the baroque feel of this material.

Tim Burton also is perfect for this subject matter. Indeed as I watched this tonight I kept wondering just why it took so long for this particular combination of people to come together to make this film. Burton concentrates on the strange gallows humor of the musical, but also plays up the bombastic and operatic qualities of it. He is no stranger to Gothic tales involving death and long-ago injustices. Indeed the somewhat disappointing Corpse Bride, which has to same two leads and some of the same themes, came only two years before this movie. In this particular case, in contrast to the Corpse Bride, pretty much everything works.

The story seems tailor made for Burton’s sensibilities. It involves the return to London of an exiled barber who is coming back after years abroad. He was banished after being framed for a crime he did not commit by a corrupt judge who coveted his beautiful young wife. In his absence his wife was raped and left for dead by the judge’s cronies and his daughter is now the imprisoned ward of the judge. Naturally the barber, using the pseudonym Sweeny Todd, swears bloody vengeance. His landlady and downstairs neighbour Mrs. Lovett produces the worst pies in London, mostly due to the scarcity of inexpensive meat. Thus comes about an unholy alliance whereby Todd’s victims become the meat for Lovett’s pies.

The original musical is pure melodrama, and Burton builds on it wonderfully. His vision of Victorian London as depicted here is a bleak, empty place. We are whipped through it a number of times in complicated digital shots that render the inhabitants almost statues. It is also blue. “Bluer than I remember” was how Amanda described it. It seems always to be night-time and just about to rain besides (which makes it all the more hilarious when we see Mrs. Lovett’s domestic daydream sequence.)

Johnny Depp is, unsurprisingly, fantastic as Todd himself. He has brooding down to an art form, and it’s fun to see him add a touch of bloodthirsty butcher to the mix. Helena Bonham Carter is no Angela Lansbury, but she makes the character of Mrs. Lovett something new. Rather than the clearly hopeless and desperate unrequited love of Lansbury’s Lovett Carter makes her plotting and attempts to capture the affection of Todd seem more plausible. Her Lovett is an eminently practical character who seems in complete control right up until the bloody end.

Bloody it is, too. I had a customer at Blockbuster, a regular and a horror movie fan, return this movie in disgust and request his money back after watching the first few minutes because he had not realized that it involved people singing. If he had stuck it out a little longer he might have found that Tim Burton has chosen to make this movie one of the most gratuitously gory of his career. Admittedly it is far from realistic and seems almost played for humor in a sort of Pythonesque way, but the great gouts of thick, syrupy, gushing blood are undeniably a big part of what makes this movie the beast it is.

This was exactly the movie that I thought it was going to be. When you hear that Tim Burton is going to direct Johnny Depp in a Stephen Sondheim musical, well, this is exactly the movie you’re going to picture in your head. If that’s the kind of thing that you find you enjoy (which it is in my case) then this movie cannot fail to entertain. I only wish that we had the three hours free tomorrow that would be necessary to follow this up with Into the Woods.

April 10, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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