Friday, December 21, 2007

From the Archive: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" Film Review

Film Grade: A

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Sweeney Todd:
The Demon Barber
of Fleet Street”
Originally published December 21st, 2007

The best kind of drama films are not the ones that go for the obvious message, but aim for something much deeper than what we see on screen.  Indeed, in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the audience is treated to pools and fountains of blood, but this is in no way a ‘slasher’ film.  The blood is metaphorical, as is nearly everything else in this perfectly crafted, haunting, and extremely powerful film.

Johnny Depp gives what might be the best performance of his career as Benjamin Barker, the barber whose wife and child were taken from him by the villainous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, also giving a phenomenal performance).  After fifteen years in exile, Barker has returned to London as Sweeney Todd, and the only thing on his mind is revenge.  Aided by the owner of a shop that sells “the worst pies in London,” Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s anger and madness overtake him, and in his vengeance, he soon draws all of society within the reach of his blade.

Ultimately, the entire story is a metaphor for revenge; not the kind of revenge in which we go beating up (or, like Sweeney, killing) people who have angered us, but the vengeful thoughts that can envelop us and make us shun those we love most.  The film’s final plot twist sets this metaphor firmly in place, and when the credits roll, you’ll walk away with a powerful message branded into your psyche.

Oh yes, there is blood.  Lots of it.  As Sweeney’s desire to kill those who wronged him grows larger, he soon comes to believe that all of society is evil, and that everyone deserves to die.  Again, this is all part of the film’s ultimate message; after all, when we, as people feel vengeful, don’t we begin to take it out on anyone?  Sweeney does it in a stronger way than most of it; his victims die in pools of blood, but this is not so that the film will attract teenagers addicted to torture porn.  The gushing blood represents the negative emotions that gush from vengeance; it represents catharsis; it represents many, many things, and while the film may be bloody, it would not have nearly as much power without it.

Of course, the film is a musical.  I probably should have mentioned that earlier, since the rather poor marketing does not feature any of the singing in it.  “Sweeney Todd” is based upon Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway production, and while I’ve never seen the show myself, I would assume it is of rather high quality to translate into such a deep, powerful film. 

90 percent of the movie is sung.  There are very few pauses for dialogue, especially on the part of Sweeney himself.  When he isn’t singing, he gets his point across through facial expressions.  All the music is phenomenal; at some times, it is funny.  Some times, it is tragic or moving, and sometimes it is disturbing or powerful.  The lyrics are as clever as you’ll ever hear, and sometimes, it is simply the rhymes Sondheim composed that make the song.

But of course, the music and plot would be nothing without the excellent cast and crew.  As stated above, Johnny Depp is phenomenal.  I love Jack Sparrow as much as the next filmgoer, but for my dollar, Todd is Depp’s deepest, most powerful, and best performance to date.  Saying it is a tour de force portrayal of this classic anti-hero is an understatement.  He gives Sweeney his all, and we are thoroughly and disturbingly nested in the man’s psyche long before the movie is over.  This translates into his singing as well.  I never would have thought Depp to be a great singer, but every song he belts out is powerful and moving.  He’s not on the same caliber singing-wise as the actors who have portrayed the character on stage, but all of the acting he put into the character’s expressions, mannerisms and dialogue translate fully into his singing, which makes all of his numbers deep and emotional.

Helena Bonham Carter also gives what might be her best performance of all time as Mrs. Lovett, the distraught pie maker who comes up with the fiendish plot of turning Sweeney’s victims into juicy meat pies.  She not-so-secretly is in love with Sweeney, and will do anything to get his affection; of course, he’s too wrapped up in revenge to notice her.  Mrs. Lovett gets the majority of the clever and witty lines and lyrics, and, surprise surprise, Carter can sing too.  She may not be a great singer, but she does but the whole of her performance into the singing, and it more than makes up for the difference.

Alan Rickman is simply evil as Judge Turpin.  Has Rickman ever not given a brilliant performance?  I doubt it.  He can sing too, as surprising as it sounds.  In fact, he and Sweeney give the film’s best duet with “Pretty Women.”  Timothy Spall (yes, that’s three total Harry Potter veterans on the list of actors) plays his right hand man, and cannot sing.  Thankfully, he has about two lines of lyrics, and the rest of his performance is brilliant, so all is forgiven.  Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) has a brief but hilarious role as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, Sweeney’s rival barber.  Once again, here’s an actor with no previous history of singing that sounds professional.  All the actors sung their own parts, and it ends up being quite surprising.  There’s not one weak link in this stellar cast, and without them, the film would be nothing.      

Then of course there’s the brilliant set design, lighting, effects, etc.  But the man behind the curtain is Tim Burton, and I honestly have no idea who else could bring this musical to the screen.  Sweeney Todd doesn’t feel like a filmed version of a Broadway show; it is a film with Broadway style-songs, and misses all the fatal traps of similar adaptations because of Burton’s artistic vision for the film.  He simply nails it head on, and even if this film did have the same stellar cast, it wouldn’t be half as good without Burton at the helm.  I’ve always loved Burton’s films, and Sweeney Todd is without a doubt his masterpiece.  Let’s hope the Oscars remember him when they turn in nominations for Best Director.

In fact, let’s hope the Oscars remember everyone across the board with at least a nomination.  Johnny Depp has turned in the best performance by a male I’ve seen all year, and Helena Bonham Carter is up there too.  A supporting actor nod for Alan Rickman is in order, and I don’t think a Best Picture nom is out of the question. 

Blood soaked and grimy though it may be, Sweeney Todd displays many of the negative ideas we, as humans, have raging within us, and as such is one of the most human films of the year.   

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