guppy's film reviews

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Year: 2007
Director: Tim Burton
Notable Actors: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
Score: A-
Summary: Top-notch execution of perhaps the most morbid musical ever made.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a film adaptation of a famous Stephen Sondheim musical. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have never seen the production, though of course I'm familiar with the basics, so this review will necessarily be focused on the execution of the film and not its faithfulness to the original production. I am told that a few songs have been excised from this version, but I have no firsthand knowledge of it.

It would be wise to familiarize oneself with the premise before going to decide if Todd is up your alley or not, because it won't be to everyone's taste. It's extremely morbid and fairly gruesome. As with the musical, the film follows Sweeney Todd's return to London and his quest for revenge on Judge Turpin (Rickman), the man who exiled him and stole his wife. Todd (Depp), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, is a barber and plans to murder him. While he's at it he begins murdering other customers as well, and Mrs. Lovett (Carter) -- the lady who runs the meat pie shop below -- turns them into meat pies and sells them. I told you it was morbid. You'd never expect something like this from the guy responsible for Into The Woods. It is, however, prime Burton fodder. (Another disclosure: I'm a longtime Burton fan.)

The first thing to note is the visuals. Burton made a highly effective choice with his palettes; the occasional flashbacks to Todd's idyllic past are vivid and brightly colored, but the scenes taking place in the present are cast in muted blues and yellows and reflect the darkness of the scenes unfolding in them. The set design is effective as well; the locales pictured do an excellent job of evoking the desired moods, particularly Todd's barbershop and Mrs. Lovett's hellish bakehouse.

The second, of course, is the singing -- this is a musical, after all. The major cast is fairly famous, which means they were cast as actors first and singers second; fortunately, they're all at least serviceable singers. The weakest link musically is probably Helena Bonham Carter, whose voice is a bit thin for the job, but she carries it reasonably well, and truth be told I can't see anyone else in the role. She pulls off exactly the right sort of unhealthy look for meat pie shop proprietress Mrs. Lovett. Depp and Rickman are both adequate as well. All three shine during the parts with vocal harmonies, which are probably the best moments musically. Depp and Rickman are also good fits for the acting roles; Rickman showed his talent at turning on the sleaze as Snape in the Harry Potter films, and Depp's intensity is very much appropriate for the off-the-hinges Todd. It's worth noting that this is the first role for Todd's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), and they appear to have taken the opportunity to cast an excellent singer for the part -- she's unquestionably the strongest voice in the cast.

As I said, Sweeney Todd isn't for everyone. There's a lot of gore, although it doesn't look particularly real, and even without that the story is pretty macabre. But if you've got the stomach for it, it's a terrifically well-made production that's very much worth your time.

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