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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews — LiveJournal
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A+
Editing: A-
Music: B+

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is not quite note-perfect, but it comes pretty damn close. Stephen Sondheim's music might have been exquisitely matched to the story in the original stage play version, but in Tim Burton's otherwise very skillful film adaptation, it gets a tad bombastic at times. Nevertheless, the spectacular cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (Dark City) and the flawless cast performances make for a film experience that is as amazing as it is rattling.

Indeed, one thing should be made perfectly clear: you may think you know how violent and graphic Sweeney Todd is meant to be, and yet what is revealed on screen is still shocking, to the point that one can leave the theatre feeling rather shaken. Burton's violence in this film is cartoony in much the same way Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies were, with not-quite realistic streams of stunning red blood squirting across the screen. The difference is that Tarantino made it knowingly humorous. Burton, however, is much more interested in frank and mostly humorless presentations of these killings, the work of a man gone completely mad with the need for vengeance.

As Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp, fantastic as ever) slits the throats of unsuspecting members of the public coming to his Barber's chair for "the closest shave you'll ever know," he steps on a lever so the chair leans back and drops the dead bodies down a trap door in the floor. We are "treated" with multiple shots of these bodies falling head-first onto the concrete below, and seeing that is arguably even more sickening than watching the throat slitting. And there's a lot of both.

It's tempting to write Sweeney Todd off as nothing more than a Goth's wet dream. Perhaps it is that, but it's so much more, once a viewer gets past the cringe-inducing, icky violence in it. These are beautifully drawn and impeccably acted characters, so much so that even though it can be a little distracting how often people sing for no apparently good reason in the first third or so of the film, the characters themselves draw you in enough to overlook it. And then the songs become progressively more relevant and feel much more natural as the film hurtles inexorably toward its inevitable -- and totally satisfying, however creepy it may be -- climax.

Helena Bonham Carter is Burton's 21st-century answer to Lisa Marie in the nineties: the girlfriend he gives a part in all his movies. It's no surprise that she appears here, and yet she's still perfectly cast as Mrs. Lovett, the deranged owner of the meat pie shop beneath Todd's barber shop. In her endless frustration with unrequited love for Todd, the woman who once made the "worst pies in London" starts to gain incredible success after baking the murder victims into them.

Meanwhile, a hilarious turn by Sacha Baron Cohen as a blackmailing competing barber leaves his young boy assistant Toby (a seriously impressive newcomer Ed Sanders) in the company of Todd and Lovett; Todd's lost daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener, pretty but with an irritatingly twittery singing voice) is being held against her will by the local Judge Turpin (the reliably fantastic Alan Rickman); and the young man who sailed back to London with Todd (Jamie Campbell Bower, who everyone seems to think is gorgeous but frankly I think he's a little funny looking) provides for a lot of convenient plot device: He pines for Johanna and longs to save her from the clutches of Judge Turpin, and in so doing foils Todd's plans for exacting revenge on the judge who stole his wife from him and sent him to prison for fifteen years on false charges.

The plot to Sweeney Todd is a bit convoluted, yet it unravels with tight precision and keeps pulling you along, even as it's completely disgusting you. Sondheim himself has said his original intention was to scare people even while people were singing, and Burton adroitly transfers that sentiment to the screen. He does it in a somewhat broader way, though, and in away that gets under the skin -- you leave the theatre feeling kind of like you just spent two hours in a dark, dang dungeon filled with vermin.

As Todd himself sings, "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/ and it's filled with people who are filled with shit/ And the vermin of the world inhabit it." If there is any one sentiment Burton conveys with this movie, that is it. It starts with characters consumed by their obsessions, and ends with the tragic consequences of completely succumbing to them. No character here is immune to the darkest depths of human behaviors, not even children.

And still there is an undeniable beauty to the entire proceeding, which is the quality that makes Sweeney Todd one of the best films of the year: It finds horror in the unlikeliest of places, and it finds beauty in horror. It all comes down to execution, and in the end, this is one of the most beautifully executed films Tim Burton has ever done. It's a return to form in many respects, putting Sweeney Todd in league with his best works, done early on in his career.

That is thanks in no small part to composer Stephen Sondheim -- making this only the second film of Burton's entire career not scored by the stupendous Danny Elfman -- who gave the story its original, otherworldly ghoulishness. These are all Very Bad People, and yet they are characters with a certain humanity somewhere inside them that speaks to audiences. Burton and his excellent cast, none of whom are great singers but all of whom provide heart rending emotional nuance to the songs they recorded themselves, make for a story that is incredibly touching even as it's horrifying.

'At last, my arm is complete again!' Johnny Depp is a cutup in 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

Overall: A-
1 comment or Leave a comment
sapphoid From: sapphoid Date: December 24th, 2007 12:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Lovely review. Reading this caused me to appreciate the film even more... although I don't think I could see it again due to the gore.
1 comment or Leave a comment