December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd (12/24/07)

Lettergrade: C-

I have not seen any previous version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, and therefore I am unable to comment on how faithful director Tim Burton might have been in translating the Stephen Sondheim musical for the cinema. I will say as a relative newcomer, however, that while I enjoyed several of the songs, I found the film at large to be awfully gruesome, and somewhat unpleasant to get through. I suppose one could inquire what I was expecting, seeing as this is a story of a scorned barber who kills for revenge, but I will draw a distinction between a genial sort of macabre, which most of Burton's movies have been until now, and the harsh, visceral macabre that more accurately describes this picture. Although the Sondheim lyrics are witty and playful in places, Burton's imagery rarely fits the same description, focusing instead on the grime and decay of 19th century London in addition to the dark themes of blood-lust and revenge.

At its core, Sweeney Todd is a basic revenge story along the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo. The title character, played by Johnny Depp, was once a successful London barber with a beautiful wife and young daughter. The tyrannical Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) became envious, and had Depp falsely imprisoned, leaving his family for himself. Many years later, Depp returns to Fleet Street a dark and troubled man seeking vengeance. He adopts the name of Todd, and takes up his old residence above an unsuccessful meat pie shop run by Helena Bonham Carter. Eventually, they form an alliance cemented by a series of musical duets: He will kill his way to Turpin, and she will process the evidence for use in her failing business. The cast also includes character actor Tim Spall as Turpin's lackee and Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, a rival Italian barber.

Although no one can deny that there's a lot of talent on screen here, I must say I found many of the characters to be off-puttingly one-note. Depp's character, for example, begins the movie focused on killing his enemies, and well, frankly, he never really shows much more complexity than that. Helena Bonham Carter's role is the most interesting of the bunch, mostly because her motivations for doing what she does during the picture are the most nuanced and, at times, mysterious. The one-dimensional nature of many of the characters is, of course, an aspect of the material that probably existed long before the makers of this film touched it, but it's worth mentioning as something that dragged the film down for me and contributes to my non-recommendation.

The material had been filmed many times before; twice in the 20s and most famously in 1936, before Sondheim wrote his stage musical based on it in '79. The musical had been taped for broadcast several times, but this is the first incarnation of Sondheim's version as a true feature film. Burton certainly didn't make it feel as if it were a filmed play: As is typical of his movies, the production design, art direction, and cinematography are all top notch. Burton reveals story points in very cinematic ways, using intimate close-ups and flashbacks to get his points across.

My complaint about Burton for a long time now, however, is while he clearly knows how to make something look great, I sometimes get the feeling that he's not terribly skilled at handling story. Of the 12 films he's directed, all but two (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands) are explicitly based on pre-existing material. Some of them have been all-around stellar pictures (Ed Wood and Pee Wee's Big Adventure in particular), but the majority seem to be awkwardly paced and in the end, strangely unsatisfying. I'm talking about Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!, his unforgivable Planet Of The Apes remake, and the visually stunning but thematically bankrupt Sleepy Hollow.

I'm sorry to say that I'd lump Sweeney Todd into that latter group in terms of pacing and unevenness. The bigger problem is that since I felt little compassion for any of the characters, by the end I was fairly indifferent about whether or not anyone would achieve the goals they had set out for. I could probably have put up with the gruesome handling of the blood-and-guts stuff a little better if the movie had simply found a way to engage. Like a lot of Burton's movies, however, this one seems to be a little more about how it looks rather than what actually happens.

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