Monday, February 11, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I always assumed that my cinematic blood feud with that hack Tim Burton would be settled with fire and death, but as it turns out he's defused the situation by making a rather stunningly good movie instead.

Sweeney Todd, for those not in the know, is a movie based on Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical about a certain Mr Benjamin Barker (played here by Johnny Depp). Brought low by the cruel mischiefs of fate, Barker is shipped off to the colonies as a convict while his wife is meanwhile molested by an unsavoury judicial official (Alan Rickman). In short order Barker escapes, returns to England, and, finding his wife apparently dead, swears murderous vengeance upon all and sundry, which is where the story begins. Before long Barker is calling himself Sweeney Todd and has resumed his previous trade as a barber, which largely consists of murdering his customers and giving the corpses to obliging neighbour Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), who cooks them up into pies for the consumption of the masses.

That may all be gruesome fare for a musical but it's perfect subject matter for director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). For years now I've been waging an uphill battle to convince the public at large that this man's life work has been shameless tripe; specifically, that he couldn't find plot, pacing, or characterisation if someone stapled his tongue to them on a carefully illustrated diagram. In Sweeney Todd, though, Burton manages to sidestep his regular directorial Chernobyls by letting the magic of the musical do his storytelling busywork for him.

Sweeney Todd is filled with actors at the top of their professional careers. Johnny Depp is predictably outrageous in the title role, continuing his Pirates of the Caribbean accented drawl. Also it turns out that Alan Rickman has a passable singing voice, though it's nothing to write home about. The real treat, though, is Bonham-Carter (Fight Club, Til Human Voices Wake Us), who after slumming her way through a plethora of sub-par roles and appalling performances over the last decade finally gets a chance to steal the show as Barker's slightly loopy pie-cooking foil.

The story is driven largely by the music, which is excellent and well framed by both the directing and the performances. The songs regularly carry the acting and pacing above the typical Tim Burton doldrums, and the movie almost entirely retains the magnificence of Sondheim's original score. It's over-the-top and full of ridiculous conceits, but that's less the music itself and more the nature of musicals as a medium. The bombastic melodrama is perfectly suited both to Johnny Depp's talents and to Tim Burton's exaggerated sense of gothic style, and if you're not hating it then you'll likely be loving its grandeur and unapologetic self-involvement.

This is a gory movie. Not gory to the extent of your average slasher flick, but still with far more blood and guts flowing than seems right in a movie that has people singing. It is essentially a film about a very deranged man who kills people and then feeds them to other people in pies, and that's not dodged or bowdlerised at any point. Don't take the children.

For all the death and drama, though, this is a fundamentally fun movie. It's something you can really get behind. The lead actors are a delight to watch, the script is witty and understated, and there's a sense of finely tuned comedic timing that follows the story the entire way through. Those pitiful creatures who consider themselves Tim Burton fans should love it, and for everyone else it's quite capable of sustaining a passionate independent cult following, should you be looking for something like that.

Don't miss out on the entertainment here just because you've been put off by Tim Burton or by musicals in the past. Sweeney Todd is a high quality movie. It's worlds above most of the rubbish that hit theatres last year, and if it's unlikely to outshine its contemporaries that's only a testament to the excellence of 2008 cinema so far.

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