Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

"Tim Burton turns everything into 'Sweeney Todd,' so this should be a natural"

Ken Levine, Nov. 18 2007

Truer words were never spoken. Tim Burton DOES turn everything into "Sweeney Todd" so there couldn't be a better pairing of director to subject matter. Burton has supervised two of the darkest animated musicals ever made ("The Nightmare Before Christmas," and "Corpse Bride") and turned them both into charming, imaginative films without once sugar-coating or denying the nightmarish imagery that unearthed those ideas. His favored composer, Danny Elfman (MIA from this film), is a disciple of Bernard Herrmann, whose work was the inspiration for the music lines of Stephen Sondheim's shock-opera. Burton's "usual suspects," Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's fiancee), star and, though the major worry was whether they could carry their tunes, they both do exemplary jobs--Depp, especially, only achieves heights of performance in song, so interior is his Todd. And though Carter may not be quite as brassy so much as tremulous, she does more than hold her own with some of Sondheim's trickier tongue-twisters.

Where "Sweeney Todd" excels, though, is the design of the thing--from the Edward Gorey-ish 2-D titles to the Pieta-like coda, the film is a masterpiece of muted design and cinematography with a palette restricted to various shades of gray--the visual equivalent of music in minor chords.

With one exception, of course. The appearance of blood is always startling. Every murder produces a blood so red that it nearly jumps out of the screen. And Burton can't resist taking the Hammer Films one better. When Sweeney Todd takes his razors to give his customers a once-over, there is no fanciful, theatrical whip-saw and it's over. Depp goes in and saws at the neck like he's cutting a thick roast, at which point the special-effects boys take over, producing arterial geysers of blood that spray--once, hitting the camera lens--in patterns that rival the fountains at the Bellagio. It's over-done, and in coagulating close-up as well, but given the interior-ness of "Sweeney Todd," it's about the only cathartic action in town. And the bodies really start piling up. I'm sure Sondheim was attracted to the subject matter of a swinish London so mired in nastiness, it more than figuratively begins to feed on its own, and the themes of a transformed man and his insatiable and destructive quest for vengeance was what drove Burton, but the gleefully torrential blood-shedding exposes the adolescent in Burton's tendencies--it's his darkest, grisliest film since "Sleepy Hollow"--and one wishes to see more of the Burton who could turn out a film like "Big Fish." More transcendence, Tim. Less Transylvania.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a bloody matinee. Bring a tarp.

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