Friday, December 21, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit, and it goes by the name of London.

For those unfamiliar with the original story and the Broadway musical, the plot involves a young barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) whose wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and infant daughter Johanna are taken from him by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Turpin steals the women for himself and sentences Barker and banishes him from London forever. The film opens with the return of Barker years later under the new name of Sweeney Todd

Todd has returned to London to take his revenge. To get close to the Judge, Todd opens a new barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) Pie Shop who informs him his wife is dead and his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has been raised by the Judge. Todd’s revenge and his frustration of not being able to kill the Judge soon start a body count which Mrs. Lovett finds a, shall we say, unique resolution.

Tim Burton returns with his keen eye and the film looks magnificent. This London is everything it needs to be; we believe Sweeney Todd lives here.

Most of the parts aren’t cast for their voices but the younger stars stand out immediately. Ed Sanders who plays the good-hearted but rather dim orphan Toby and Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower as Johanna’s young suitor Anthony Hope give great performances blow the doors off the theater with their musical numbers. And Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sascha Baron Cohen all fit in well and prove they too can carry a tune.

And then there’s Mr. Todd. Although physically Johnny Depp is perfect for the role, many, including me, were unsure of the logic of casting Depp in a role where he needs to sing throughout the film. We needn’t have worried. Depp proves up to the task providing a more than adequate voice to go with Todd’s vacant stare and murderous heart. If this performance doesn’t earn him and Oscar nomination I’d suggest he should rightly pull out his razor and do some hunting of his own!

The film trims the lengthy Stephen Sondheim musical to almost exactly two hours. Because of this the film’s story and narrative, pushed forward by great music and score, have a quick pace yet still ample time to hit all the right notes. You want a complaint from me, here it is - the film is too short! Here’s a film I would have gladly spent another 30 to 40 minutes with and enjoyed myself all the more. My only other complaint, and I admit it’s a small criticism, are the matching of shots in a couple scenes, most notable during “A Little Priest” as the cleaver in Todd’s hand moves in the different camera angles during his dance with Mrs. Lovett. I’ll admit it’s a small issue, but that’s all I can really find to complain about.

Sweeney Todd isn’t really your average Christmas film. It’s dark, moody, bloody, vengeful, and doesn’t contain a either a happy ending or an important moral lesson. What it does have is a look, sound, a style and a soul unlike anything else seen on film this year. It’s like a demented version of The Music Man, and although the plot and songs themselves are sometimes quite macabre they’re also quite catchy and moving. It’s not the film to pile the entire family in the car to see, but all the same it is a must-see for fans of both great cinema and musicals, and of films that become more than their parts and enthrall and entertain you completely (even when the body count starts to rise).

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