Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sweeney Todd: beauty in the bloodbath

Tim Burton's take on the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is vintage Tim Burton-- dark in its humor, cinematography, and eye makeup, disturbing with its tragedy, gore, and character psychoses, and incongruously delightful despite (or is it because of?) the macabre madness. This movie is the antithesis to 2007's other Broadway musical film adaptation, the joyful, colorful, rambunctious romp that was Hairspray. In stark contrast, Sweeney Todd is no feel-good film, but it is an excellent one, and in this former BBC Oscar panelist's humble opinion, it deserved the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, and it deserves at least a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Musicals tend to rely heavily on production spectacles, and performances from the actors, no matter how good, usually get overwhelmed by the catchy songs, elaborate sets and fancy costumes. Not so in the case of Sweeney Todd. Burton's muse, Johnny Depp, arguably the best actor of our generation, is outstanding as the tortured, twisted titular character. Depp's demon barber is a haunted, hollow, yet still achingly human soul, practically Shakespearian in his tragic circumstances: wrongfully imprisoned by a lecherous judge, Benjamin Barker loses his beautiful wife and baby girl, and returns to London 15 years later a changed man with a changed name, merciless, murderous and hell bent on revenge. Playing the throat-slitting Sweeney Todd, Depp has all the morbid, magnetic appeal of a bloody car wreck: it's terrifying, but you just can't tear your eyes away. It's not just the raccoon circles under his eyes (or the skunk hair)-- it's the spite he spits out in his singing, it's the fierce intelligence detectable in the otherwise dead eyes, and above all it's the hint of the person he used to be, now being consumed by his rage. This is a man whose bitterness and hatred are easy to recognize, but whose grief and pain and despair are only made palpable thanks to Depp's magnificent range as an actor.
He lends a depth and unlikely empathetic quality to a character who has lost his moral center AND his sanity, in the same manner in which he succeeded in making a scoundrel like Captain Jack Sparrow lovable.

Solid supporting performances are delivered by the fabulous Mrs. Tim Burton, Helena Bonham-Carter, as devious Mrs. Lovett and my darling Alan Rickman (in top sleazy/sexy form) as vile Judge Turpin. I am always impressed when actors reveal a hidden talent, and though I wouldn't advise them to quit their day jobs, both Bonham-Carter and Rickman are pretty decent singers, as Depp is. Sacha Baron-Cohen of Borat fame appears in a brief but scene-stealing role as the shrewd Italian barber Pirelli, and provides some of the movie's few moments of comic relief.

There are many unpretty things in Sweeney Todd-- child abuse, cruelty, lunacy, murder, cannibalism, cockroaches, and a lot of red, red blood. But for all its visceral and visual sordidness, it is an utterly compelling and moving film. And perhaps that, ultimately, is the genius of Tim Burton: finding and revealing the beauty in the wretched, the wicked, and the damned.


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