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Friday, December 21, 2007

Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has all the hallmarks of a Tim Burton film: it’s visually stunning, it’s dark and ghoulish, and centers on an outsider. It’s also curiously soulless and kind of disappointing. There’s a lot of dramatic material that could be mined here, but it’s all glossed over and the result is a film that is lacking in depth.

Sweeney Todd is probably the goriest musical you’ll ever see - it’s actually more like a horror movie that happens to have music in it. As for the music, I enjoyed the numbers “A Little Priest,” where Todd (Johnny Depp) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) devise their plan to turn the residents of Fleet Street into meat pies, “By The Sea,” where Mrs. Lovett imagines herself and Todd getting married and going to a sea-side resort, and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” which sees Todd pitting himself against rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Coen); but otherwise found myself fairly indifferent to the soundtrack. Admittedly, this isn’t meant to be a toe-tapping, sing-along musical, but I do find that musicals, by and large, are more effective when the songs move you as you’re watching the film, and stay with you after you’ve left the theatre.

I think my problem with the film is that I didn’t believe in the characters’ relationships with each other. It’s hard to really grasp the full tragic potential of the last act when you don’t really believe in the characters feelings about it. After being falsely imprisoned in Australia, Todd returns to London to exact revenge on the man who sent him away, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), and supposedly to avenge his wife and daughter, both of whom Turpin has ill-used. However, Todd seems more intent on punishing Turpin than on rescuing his daughter, obsessing more on when he’ll get to kill the former, than on wondering about the safety of the latter. I know that the point of the story is that Todd is so blinded by hate that he can’t see the bigger picture, but we have to first believe in his adoration of Lucy and Johanna before we can feel the force of the tragedy he brings about when he finally gets his revenge. Johnny Depp does what he can with the role, but the film ultimately limits it to one dimension. Sweeney Todd is angry. Sweeney Todd will have vengeance. Sweeney Todd is ridiculously self-centered and kind of tiresome.

Mrs. Lovett, as played by Helena Bonham-Carter, fairs a little bit better. Bonham-Carter brings a shade of humanity to the role, especially in scenes with Toby (Ed Sanders), the ward she takes in. She’s just as bad as Todd in terms of murderous misdeeds, but she still comes across as sympathetic. It’s perhaps because Bonham-Carter is allowed to play her character at various levels – she gets to be happy and sad, devious and regretful, lonely and later fulfilled in a pseudo-familial relationship with Todd and Toby – while Depp is limited to playing Todd as bitter/angry throughout, that she seems to come out better. Sacha Baron Coen is also good, adding a brief burst of color and life to the dark and drab world of the film, before becoming the first victim of Sweeney Todd’s blade.

Visually speaking, the movie is very effective. If there’s one thing you can say about Tim Burton, it’s that he fully conceptualizes his worlds before committing them to film. His vision of London is dark, full of dirty, narrow streets where vermin run free. There’s a running visual motif of Todd not being able to see clearly through glass – his mirror is broken, the windows of the shop are dirty and make the people outside look blurry – it’s the visual representation of his being blinded by fury. But, again, it lacks depth. It’s there, but it isn’t explored. There’s a lot of subtext to this story – the residents of Fleet Street avoid Mrs. Lovett’s shop until she starts baking her pies with her new secret ingredient; it literally demonstrates the figurative concept that not only are people willing to eat their own, they secretly want to – but it just lies there underneath the story, touched on then forgotten.

All that being said, Sweeney Todd isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just not the movie that it could have been. It’s mostly entertaining, it’s just not very filling – a snack rather than a feast.

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