Sunday, January 20, 2008

Film Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Unlucky barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), having spent 15 years in exile after being convicted of a crime he didn't commit by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) who coveted his wife, returns to London under his new name of Sweeney Todd seeking revenge. Upon being informed by his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), that his wife died in his absence and that Judge Turpin has taken his daughter as his ward, Todd opens up shop again and starts giving people the closest shaves they'll ever 'ave.

I had high hopes for this, seeing as I am a fan of both musicals and gory horror films (not gorno, or whatever meaningless title people affix to tripe like Saw, but good horror films with plots and that) and I was interested in seeing if the team of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp could forge a good cinematic version of Steven Sondheim's notoriously bloody musical. Fortunately, they managed to succeed.

As with any Tim Burton film, even the many that I flat-out don't like, the production design of the film is immaculate; the usual black-and-white colour palette and stripey decor are used to great effect to create a murky, hyper-realised Victorian London that not only allows the liberal splashes of claret, as well as Bonham Carter's Chucky Finster hairdo, to show up in a very striking way, but also helps to set the melodramatic, near-operatic tone of the film, perfectly creating a London which truly does seem like ''a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it''. Burton is able to mold the material to his vision, or vice versa, so perfectly that it almost seems like the two were made for each other.

As far as the acting/singing side of things go, the cast in general acquit themselves splendidly. In casting Depp and Bonham Carter, Burton has secured actprs who can sing a bit rather than singers who can act a bit, which I think is a real boon to the film since even if they don't have particularly strong voices, they manage to carry the story very well in their performances. That's not to say that they're bad singers, just that they don't really compare to actual singers who might perform the songs on stage and the film relies more on their physical performances to sell the roles. It's also worth noting that having to sing in character with both of them putting on accents is not an easy thing to do and even with all that stacked against them they still give good performances. Also, Depp bears favourable comparisons to David Bowie in his delivery; on the song ''Pretty Women'' he sounds uncannily like Bowie on his drum-and-bass track ''Little Wonder''.

It's also to the credit of Depp that he manages to make Todd into such a believable monster whilst retaining some sympathy for him, always retaining the basic tragedy of his character. Todd's progression from a man obsessed with vengeance against a handful of people to a general murderous misanthropy and desire to make unwitting cannibals of London's denizens is wonderfully handled and is in keeping with the heightened emotional state required of such a dark musical. Bonham Carter is also very good, even if her voice is not as striking as Depp's, and gets all the best lines, particularly her deadpan reactions to Sweeney's murders and the way in which she seems non-plussed about absolutely everything that occurs.

The supporting cast are also particularly strong but it is Timothy Spall who steals the show with a deliciously repellent turn as Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin's odious aid. He is clearly relishing his chance to be an utterly irredeemible character and I'm surprised there hasn't been more praise for him in the reviews I've read, though that may be just because I love Timothy Spall in just about everything he does.

In terms of direction this is probably Burton's strongest film to date, with the notable exceptions of some ropey CGI camerawork (a pet hate of mine) and an awful title sequence. The murders are gruesome but done in such an over the top way that the way in which blood spurts from severed arteries like ruby-red fountains becomes hilarious. Probably my favourite example of this is a sequence in which a ballad sung by Todd and Antony, a young sailor who becomes besotted with Todd's daughter, Joanna, is carried out whilst Todd nonchalantly slits throat after throat. This scene is very wittily staged and more or less sums up the macabre humour that lies at the heart of the film. Though there are moments of lighter relief, particularly a brief showing from Sasha Baren Cohen as a flamboyant possible rival to Todd, it's mostly the bloodshed, and the reactions to it, that elicit the most laughs.

It's not without its flaws; the aforementioned romance between Antony and Joanna, whilst necessary in bringing the film to its denouement, feels underdeveloped and generally slows things down, and the conclusion itself feels quite rushed as all the various monsters of the film get their just desserts, but that's mainly the result of swift pacing and a brief running time. Ultimately, it's a hugely enjoyable film that looks wonderful, has some great performances, great songs, plenty of blood and which manages to synthesise the horror and musical genres to great effect in a way which is simultaneously hugely theatrical yet manages to be a truly cinematic experience.