' ' Cinema Romantico: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I have never been what one might term a big Tim Burton Fan. But I'll get back to that in just a minute. At the end of Woody Allen's mid-90's musical "Everyone Says I Love You" the Natasha Lyonne character has a voiceover in which she explains the plot of the entire movie could "only exist in a musical". I thought of the line as the credits rolled during Burton's newest film, an amazingly dark musical opus. I know exactly why I've never liked much of Burton's work but absolutely adored "Sweeney Todd". His stories could only exist as a musical.

At the film's start the title character (Johnny Depp, who does sound a bit like Captain Jack Sparrow though after awhile you'll completely forget that) is returning to London aboard a ship with the younger Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower). A flashback advises us that, in fact, Todd's real name is Benjamin Barker and many years ago he was happy with a beautiful wife and infant child named Joanna. But the vile Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) had eyes for Barker's wife, turned the screws on Barker, sent him away to prison, and took in his wife and child. But his wife took poison and now an older Joanna spends her days locked away from the world courtesy of Turpin.

And so Benjamin Barker (or Sweeney Todd, whichever you prefer) returns to London, a bit peeved, and his old barber shop and enlists the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who owns the restaurant below his old shop which proudly sells the worst meat pies in London. Barker (or Todd), you see, is not just out for revenge on the evil Turpin, he decides "everyone must die" and constructs a special barber's chair that allows him to slash the throats of unsuspecting customers (there is more blood in this movie than in "Kill Bill", so beware), slide them off the chair and into the basement where Mrs. Lovett uses the meat for her, ahem, pies. And soon business is booming, though Barker (or Todd's) rage only seems to grow.

But since the movie is based on the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim time must be taken for a few songs to be sung (Depp and Bonham Carter admirably do their own singing) and eventually the movie does what a good movie musical should do - make you forget the fact you're watching a musical. The songs flow seamlessly in and out of the narrative. They are not merely song & dance numbers but pieces of the story.

Burton has always been an astounding visual filmmaker and the visuals here do not disappoint. This is a dark, nightmarish London and Barker's (or Todd's) barber shop is a frightening place with a window looking out over the just-as-frightening rooftops that would not really make anyone want to stop in for a cut and a shave but, hey, that's sorta' the point. The shot when Barker (or Todd) sinisterly - and triumphantly - holds aloft his precious razor and declares "my arm is complete again" made me want to stand and applaud except I didn't since I figured the rest of the audience would be a bit leery of that lunatic (i.e. Me) down front.

Despite being so accomplished with his visuals, however, Burton's ability to pace a story has never left me impressed. I've always found his movies rife with stops and starts of momentum. He's never as taken with the narrative of his films as he is with the way they look. In this case he already had his material in place and so perhaps this forced him to keep focus because the pacing is extraordinary. The acts build, one-by-one, and by the end of the third things are dizzying, though not confusing. (I had to go to the bathroom so incredibly bad - this is what I get for drinking a cup of coffee during a movie - but I wasn't going anywhere for fear of missing even of a second!) The movie builds to something and that is its finest quality.

It also wonderfully ignores typical modern-day movie-making logic by climaxing with its conclusion. There will be no extra scenes. It crescendoes with the final shot.

The shot itself is so sickeningly beautiful, so disgustingly luminous, so preposterously romantic, so perfect, that I couldn't help but think as I felt the goosebumps roll up my arm with it before me and then watched the screen fade to black that "Sweeney Todd" is the movie Tim Burton was born to make.

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