Phil on Film Index

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

In the first few minutes of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is just more of the same from Tim Burton. After all, the opening credits are basically a rehash of those employed for the director's last film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except in this case it's blood that we watch dripping down the screen instead of chocolate. Aside from that superficial similarity – and the inevitable presence of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter among the cast – this adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical feels like something fresh coming from a filmmaker who has struggled to find a suitable outlet for his unique sensibility ever since 1994's Ed Wood, his last truly satisfying effort. Sondheim's account of the vengeful barber, who butchered his clients and turned them into meat pies, is a perfect match for Burton. It's a tale ready-made for his gothic style and perverse humour, and it allows him to explore the darkest recesses of his imagination like never before.

Sweeney Todd also gives Burton the opportunity to finally make a full-on musical, after including song-and-dance sequences in a few of his previous films, and this is a musical in the proper sense, with the vast majority of dialogue being sung instead of being restricted to isolated numbers. The film opens with a ship emerging from a thick fog, passing under London Bridge, and a young man on the deck (Jamie Campbell Bower) is moved to sing the city's virtues, telling us that "there's no place like London", but his fellow passenger offers a different view. "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, and it goes by the name of London" Sweeney Todd (Depp) sings, his voiced filled with loathing and disgust. 15 years earlier, Todd was a respected Fleet Street barber named Benjamin Barker, but he was arrested under false charges by the corrupt Judge Turpin (a sneering Alan Rickman) – who had designs on Barker's wife and young child – and exiled forever.

The flashbacks to Benjamin Barker's once-happy life are bathed in golden light, as if from a half-forgotten dream, and there's a later fantasy sequence which is vividly coloured; but whenever the film brings us back to the central story the colours are leeched out of the picture. Burton has always been at his best when allowed to work in black, white and shades of grey, and these are the predominant hues in Dante Ferretti's superb production design, Colleen Atwood's costumes, and Dariusz Wolski's cinematography, giving us an almost monochromatic picture which is dripping with atmosphere. Even the actors appear to have been drained of colour, and Depp certainly cuts a striking figure with his pale skin, darkened eyes and Elsa Lanchester wig. The character of Sweeney Todd fits perfectly within the stable of strange outsiders he and Burton have created over the years; he's another odd loner, viewing humanity from the outside and seemingly unable to connect with others on a normal emotional level, and Depp is remarkably good in the role. He's essentially playing a monster, a man driven only by thoughts of vengeance and hatred, but he manages to suggest a real humanity and soulfulness under the surface, doing some of his most impressive acting only with his eyes.

But what about his voice? Neither Depp, Bonham Carter, nor most of the other cast members are renowned for their singing talents, and it's true that they are unlikely to be taking Broadway by storm any time soon, but their voices have different qualities which are well exploited here. Depp's singing voice is deep and gravelly, but he compensates for his lack of real scale by infusing his songs with emotion. Every line he spits out in that cockney growl comes from deep within him, the tone and pitch of his performance giving us a resonant portrait of a tortured soul. Bonham Carter's voice is even smaller than Depp's, and more problematic – she has trouble wrapping her tongue around some of Sondheim's lyrics – and she is often noticeably weaker than her co-stars, such as during Not While I'm Around, in which the exceptional young actor Ed Sanders (playing her assistant Toby) out-sings her comprehensively. But Bonham Carter brings a tenderness to her character and there's a palpable sense of longing in her scenes with Depp, particularly during the wonderful By the Sea sequence.

This film version of Sweeney Todd doesn't need booming stage voices anyway, and Burton understands that. He makes his film an intimate drama, favouring tight close-ups in claustrophobic sets, and his staging of the musical numbers is terrific. He and editor Chris Lebenzon cut in rhythm with the score, generating a thrillingly kinetic energy in many of them, and presenting songs which flow beautifully. Some of these songs are amusing, like Pirelli's Miracle Elixir (Pirelli is played by Sacha Baron Cohen, trying another foreign accent and getting big laughs); some of them are plaintive, such as Depp's ode to his razors in My Friends, while others are deeply sinister. During the duet Pretty Women, Judge Turpin sits in Todd's chair, without knowing his true identity, and the pair both sing the praises of the same girl as the barber's blade moves swiftly inches from his target's throat. It's a devilishly clever sequence, and extraordinarily tense.

Not everything in Sweeney Todd works. The secondary romance between Todd's teenage daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and his onetime shipmate Anthony (Bower) is an insipid strand of the story which pales in significance with the main narrative; occasionally it can be hard to make out exactly what's being said in some of the more intricate songs, and Timothy Spall overplays his hand as Turpin's creepy sycophant. But taken as a whole the film is a dazzling achievement. In its second hour, Burton cuts loose, showering the screen with fountains of blood as Todd despatches one victim after another – slicing their throats, flicking a switch, and sending them down a chute into Mrs Lovett's pie shop, where they land with a horrible crunch. These are extraordinary sights to be witnessing in a mainstream Hollywood musical, and the film escalates to a climax which is shockingly cruel, but totally apt. It would have been all too easy for the filmmakers to soften the pill a little by giving us a happy ending for the film's star-cross'd lovers, or for young Toby, but instead it closes with death and darkness, leaving the Demon Barber alone in a pit of his own despair.