Reviewed by Tristan Sinns
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall
Directed by Tim Burton
The transformative nature of bitter rage and fury is powerful stuff. Forget what Victor Frankenstein told you about zapping corpses with lightning to make a monster; the real beasts of the world are created by a thorough soaking in the raw negative energy of despair and hate. As self-destructive as it is destructive, this monster will risk everything to appease and satisfy its bitter need for revenge, the lives of innocents no exception.
Benjamin Barker is dead from sorrow of the heart, long live black-heart Sweeney Todd and his poisonous blades; may we all survive his awakening!
Life is good for Benjamin Barker. He has his wife with her beautiful golden hair, a cheery daughter, and the sun’s come out over London for once. Sorrow it is for him, then, that his wife’s beauty has come to the notice of the local corrupt Judge Turpin (Rickman). The magistrate wastes no time in setting up fabricated charges for Barker and has him carted off to prison for 15 years; plenty of time to woe an unwilling woman.
Now 15 years later, Barker returns by boat to gloomy London. Transformed in dress and in heart, he announces Barker to be dead and takes up the new name of Sweeney Todd (Depp). He quickly finds that his wife poisoned herself to escape the passions of the wicked judge so many years ago, and that his daughter was adopted by that very same hateful man. He sets up a barbering shop and begins to plot his revenge along with help from his meat-pie making neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Carter).
First and foremost, if you haven’t heard already, and yes, I must state the obvious; this is a musical. It’s not shy about that fact either, and if you’re timid about musicals you’d best brace yourself or risk nasty system shock. You’ll know it is a musical from the first few seconds when doe-eyed young Anthony Hope (Bower) breaks out in song while looking upon London’s dark shores with his large, dreamy, anime eyes. The music itself is the same stuff as the acclaimed Broadway play, written by the prolific musical master Sondheim. The songs are catchy things, complex, with multiple layers, quick rhymes and witty turns of phrase. If you’re allergic to choreographed dancing along with music, fear not; songs are sung as the characters perform the actions they’d be performing anyway, whether it be making a meat pie or committing a string of grisly murders.
The film includes stars known for their acting and less known for their singing abilities. This is the sixth pairing of director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and when it became known that Depp would be singing one had to wonder if it should have stopped one less. However, surprising everyone including no doubt himself, Depp actually pulls it off. It is doubtful many would rush out to buy any future solo albums released by the man (I could be wrong here), but his moody crooning wasn’t really all that hard on the ears. He has a certain rasp that’s rather reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s Jack Skellington (another Burton darling), but it is true that, if you’re going to imitate someone, make it someone good.
Everyone else is similarly vocally competent as well. Helena Bonham Carter sings through her role with a perfect mix of well timed wit and haunted longing. Somehow it wasn’t surprising that Alan Rickman could carry a tune, since the man is so thoroughly theatrically sophisticated. He could spontaneously juggle chainsaws and I wouldn’t be too surprised. Timothy Spall, playing Rickman’s evil side-kick in the film, also manages to eek out a few notes of worth, though seeing Spall and Rickman together immediately made it feel like a Harry Potter flashback. It didn’t help that the characters were very similar. Snape and Wormtail are loose in London and, by god, they’re singing! Look at them go!
Sweeney Todd is a gorgeous thing to look at. Burton captures a Gothic London only as he can, with perfectly gray cloud-filled skies, muddy gutters, dark buildings, and scores of pale faced Londoners in the bosomy dresses and dark stylish coats of the time. The entire set-up of the cinematography is perfection, with many shots so beautifully captured that they are fit for framing. It is also true that some of these shots and camera movements are little too slick and polished, and thus can pull a viewer out of the picture. Sometimes, less is more.
Among other things, this is a story of murder and revenge, and Sweeney Todd carries out his horrid tasks with a gory vengeance. The film is bloody, even somehow surprisingly so despite an understanding of the content and its R-rating. The arterial sprays gush with a red enthusiasm that rival wounds inflicted by Toshirô Mifune. While the character’s of Todd and Mrs. Lovette are sympathetic and even likable, the film doesn’t try to pretty up what they’re doing. Murder is an ugly thing, even when people deserve it.
While the subject material is certainly dark, gloomy, and rife with bloody murders, Burton still manages to seed in a fair amount of levity and humor to lighten the load. A lot of this humor comes from the matter-of-fact practical nature of Mrs. Lovette as she adjusts to the dark mission of Todd. The most humor, however, is found in the character of Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Cohen), an outrageously garbed barbering competitor. Pirelli dresses like some sort of bizarre blue bull-fighter, a ridiculously complex outfit complete with bulging male camel toe, and speaks with an absurdist and foppish articulation that steals every single scene he sets foot in.
Sweeney Todd’s overriding theme is that of longing and desire, and how the unjust lack of it can drive men to become demons in the flesh. I can’t help but think of the wormy demons in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke; vile worm-covered beings made from kinder Gods who had been subjected to a curse of bitter hate. The evil judge himself is driven to his foul deeds out of an obvious loneliness that is only barely hidden by a cruel sneer. You can just barely see there is a kinder man hidden in there, wishing he could come forward to light. Todd, unfairly deprived of life’s love through the cruelty of another, becomes just as twisted, cruel, and vicious as the man who wronged him. The two are ultimately no worse than the other in any moral sense; though Todd would win any popularity show just by having more style and flash. Sometimes that’s all that matters. Go see this film.
4 out of 5
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