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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2007)

13. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

There was a time when Tim Burton and Johnny Depp took time off between working with each other. There was four years between the Eds, Scissorhands and Wood, and five between “Ed Wood” and “Sleepy Hollow.” By 2007, that had all changed. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the third film in a row the two would make together. It came in the middle of a five film run for the two that wouldn’t be broken until 2012’s “Frankenweenie.” Cast opposite Depp was Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s wife and herself five films deep in a seven film streak. Neither Depp nor Carter are singers while Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett are frequently voted two of the most difficult to sing roles in all of musical theater. This haphazard casting decision marks “Sweeney Todd” as a product of Burton’s latter-day laziness.

The film is, of course, adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s beloved stage musical, which was itself adapted from a non-singing play that was inspired by the original penny dreadful and British urban legend. The story is well known. Sweeney Todd is actually Benjamen Barker, a once normal barber driven to revenge by the rape of his wife and kidnapping of his daughter. As Todd, he slits the throats of his customers whose dead bodies are then cooked into pies by Mrs. Lovett, the baker who lives down stair. Though acting as a serial killer, Todd’s actual goals are those of revenge, as he hopes to have the villainous Judge Turpin in his chair someday soon.

The deeply cynical world-view of Sondheim’s play seems to match up with Burton’s increasingly down-hill view of humanity. London as portrayed in the film resembles Burton’s Gotham. It’s a dark, foreboding place that’s always shrouded in fog and the sun never shines. All the public officials are crooked, if not actively sadistic. The state of the city is such that a serial killer can off victims under the guise of a legitimate business and no one ever catches on. Cannibalism actually proves to be a great busy model, as cooking people meat into her pies causes Mrs. Lovett’s business to blossom. As summed up in the opening number, 1848’s London is not a nice place. In a setting such as this, a revenge crazed murderer easily becomes an anti-hero worth rooting for.

I remember being discouraged when I saw the trailers for “Sweeney Todd.” Johnny Depp in a black-and-white fright wig, singing and dancing around the streets of London while holding two straight razors, seemed incredibly silly. Out of context, that’s still true. Within the film, however, it fits in fine. Burton’s films have always taken place in a world just removed from reality. Oddly, this makes him a good choice to direct a musical. “Sweeney Todd” piles on the director’s trademarks to the point of self-parody. Depp and Carter look ridiculous, their skin sheet-white with perpetual black circles under their baggy eyes. The whole movie is shot in a blueish grey tone, providing a constantly dreary atmosphere. The characters’ outfits frequently feature black and white stripes. While the sets aren’t all at jagged angles, they’re exaggerated enough to classify as “expressionistic.” Every shot in the movie is color corrected, giving “Sweeney Todd” a deeply artificial look. If this was an attempt to recapture the feel of the stage play, I can’t say. It seems Burton was aiming for gritty but wound up with slick and shiny instead.

Even if “Sweeny Todd” in general doesn’t look very good, you can still see the artist that Burton once was striving to free himself. A few times the director’s love for memorable one-off shots shine through. Reunited with his razor blades, Todd stretches out his arms, the camera reeling out through the shop window. After reaching his epiphany that everyone deserves to die, Todd falls to his knees in the street, razors in hand, screaming towards the heavens. At the end of the first act, the director’s reflects Depp’s face in the razor’s blade. The shot is mirrored at the end except this time the blade is dripping with blood. The final shot of the film, bleeding lovers entwined in each other arms, is simultaneously poetic and disturbing. Burton does a good job of lending a cinematic feel to a stage play, even if parts of the film are still somewhat flatly shot.

The most interesting thing about “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in any incarnation is the character of Sweeney. Todd is a sociopath, an anti-hero, and even a vehicle for social commentary. Though initially only interested in revenge, and occasionally killing to cover his tracks, its not long before Todd is advocating wide-scale murder and cannibalism. He is indifferent to human suffering. Yet in such an unscrupulous world, Todd is a man of principals. He murders without remorse only because he truly believes every one is equally unworthy of life. Judge Turpin is a despicable character, a rapist who damns children to prison during the day and lusts after his teenage adopted daughter by night. Todd kills innocents too but at least he has a solid motivation behind his violence. As displayed in the song “A Little Priest,” the barber especially relishes targeting the upper-crust of society – the clergy, politicians, and the rich. He is a man chewed up and spat out by the system who now intends on getting revenge on that system, one slit throat at a time.

Despite flirting with the horror genre all throughout his career, Burton’s films rarely feature explicit bloodshed. “Sweeney Todd” has the director showing his love for Grand Guignol for the first time since “Sleepy Hollow.” Both films have a similar approach to the red stuff. In both, the blood is purposely fake looking. Here, it’s orange-red, too thick, and spurts with abandon. Each throat slashing is followed by a geyser of gore. At one point, the blood even sprays on the camera. It’s exaggerated enough that a black comedy quickly sets in. During the reprise of “Johanna,” easily the prettiest song in the film, Sweeney dispassionately cuts throats, impartial to the bloodshed around him. Bodies slump down the chute, cracking on the floor, like a particularly grisly slapstick comedy. The film is bloody as hell but realism isn’t on the director’s mind. Instead, the goal is somewhere between late period Hammer horror and Monty Python.

How much one enjoys the film is largely dependent on one’s tolerance for musical theater. While an avid lover of rock opera and occasional filmed musicals, I find I have little patience for musical theater. I’ve seen a few Sondheim plays and find I’m real uncertain on the guy. He has an ear for word play and his lyrics are frequently clever. However, he’s always striving for a catchy melody and rarely finds it. Too many of “Sweeny’s” songs are dialogue set to music that would have been better spoken. “The Worst Pies in London” and “Poor Thing” are basically character exposition set to music and neither ever finds a beat. “A Little Priest” is the worst, a rambling number heavily hampered by too many lyrics. A lot of the numbers, like “The Contest” or “Wait” get lost in the shuffle between bigger, more memorable numbers. The theatrical style of piling songs upon songs makes it difficult for any one number to rise to the top. By leaning heavily on reoccurring motifs, it’s not always easy to even distinguish one song from another.

Yet a few songs do rise to the top. “Johanna,” the reprise especially, is mostly devoted to one strong voice and features sad yet oddly hopeful lyrics and a stirring melody. (That is, if you cut out the annoying Beggar Woman sections.) “Not While I’m Around” functions similarly and gives Toby a stand-out number. “Pretty Women” is another strong moment, as a duet between Depp and Alan Rickman, their voices pitched at different levels. “My Friends” probably features the best singing Depp does in the film, as his low voice works best with the slower music and darker lyrics. “Sweeney Todd” has enough good music to function successfully as a musical even if the all-together experience is close to exhausting.

Another disappointing trademark of musical theater is that plays have to be long. “Sweeney Todd: The Movie” clips several of the play’s more extraneous subplots. Yet even then, the film features two subplots that end up adding little to the story. Most of all is the romance between Anthony and Johanna. Anthony rescues Todd from the ocean at story’s start, a part that could have easily been filled by anyone. Johanna, and the lust Turpin feels for her, establishes the villain’s rottenness. Yet many other things accomplish the same feat. Todd never knowingly meets his daughter again, making you wonder why the writers didn’t kill her off to begin with. Though they’re present, neither Anthony or Johanna affect the final act. For most of the movie, the character of Toby doesn’t contribute much either. A shaving contest with his fraudulent master is Todd’s big reveal to the public but another event could have easily accomplished the same thing. It’s not until the very end that Toby proves any purpose to the overall story. Even after a judicious pruning, Broadway story styling still proves too ungainly for Hollywood.

At least we get that bad ass ending out of it. Sweeney finally takes his revenge on Judge Turpin, in fantastic fashion. His true identity is revealed and, before the villain can accurately grasp it, he is spectacularly dispatched. Before hand, Todd unknowingly executed his beloved wife, still alive and living as a vagrant woman. This brings an element of Greek tragedy to the story, the protagonist brought down by his own doing. We learn just how bad a person Mrs. Lovett truly is, willing to lie and condone murder to fulfill her school girl crush. Burning to death in her own oven is a suitably ironic ending. Todd seems to extend his neck for his killer, ready to end his miserable life. The final act focuses on the film’s primary and most important characters. It’s so focused and so good that you wonder why all that other stupid stuff is even in there.

While “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” was generally well received, two elements were roundly criticized. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter can’t sing. Depp does a limp Bowie impersonation for many of the songs, his shallow, powerless voice seeming hopelessly out of his element. As outclassed as Depp is, at least he still packs some anger and indignation into the songs. Separate from the weak singing, it’s actually a decent performance. The same can’t be said for Carter. Her voice is so willowy and weak. She frequently sounds like a little kid attempting to sing like a grown-up. Considering how wordy the lyrics she’s given frequently are, you wonder why Burton ever thought she was suitable for the part. “By the Sea,” a song that easily could have been excised as it contributes nothing to the story, best exemplifies Carter’s lack of vocal prowess.

At least Burton had the good sense to pack the supporting cast full of prime players. Alan Rickman excels as playing characters with a misplaced sense of moral superiority. That, combined with the actor’s rarely used strength for sleaziness, makes him the perfect choice for Turpin. Also perfectly cast is Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford, Turpin’s sidekick. Spall’s rat-like facial features and conniving demeanor make him an ideal choice for the part. Sacha Baron Cohen, still best known as Borat at the time, appeared to be an oddball choice. Yet the actor’s ability to create ridiculous accents and his total lack of comedic shame makes him a pretty decent Pirelli. Surprisingly, Cohen winds up having one of the strongest singing voices in the cast. Unlike Carter’s wavering Cockney accent, Cohen sings fine while still maintaining a ridiculous put-on accent.

The visuals are overly glossy, the lead performances are uneven, and the script still isn’t as focused as it could have been. Yet “Sweeney Todd” is still one of Burton’s better latter day films. The movie has a strong center and several moments of unexpected power. A dazzling finale makes up for a lot of the problems faced earlier. Its blades are more dull then sharp but far more of the film then expected makes the cut. [Grade: B-]

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