Monday, March 03, 2008

SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF THE FLEET STREET: MOVIE REVIEW

Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Tim Burton
Runtime: 116 min.
Rating: ***Genre: Musical, Horror

The closest I’ve ever paid a visit to man wreaking a gruesome violent act and exercising his vocal chords no hold barred was when this certain lad called Alex DeLarge brutalized ‘Singin in the Rain’ and raped and maimed this innocent couple. It was, in the best of Brechtian traditions, disturbing no end. Come to think of it, the macabre idea of a barber vocalizing nihilist lyrics, and with his glistening silver blades craving for the slightest of contact with human skin, and then slitting them in chilling hurry blood gushing out in all directions, would be uniquely horrifying. That was my idea what Sweeney Todd would be, the Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical that has captured audiences like few others have since its premiere way back in 1979.
Looking at the motion picture adaptation, it feels like the quintessential Tim Burton film – loud, pompous, lavish and largely bereft of any soul. What you see is everything, and that is all to be had. It is an interesting exercise in the genre, confined within the boundaries and probably the first of its kind, with blood and songs walking hand in hand. But disturbing it certainly is not. Moving? No chance. Profound? Not even in hell. Entertaining? You could watch it.
Burton’s favorite partner Depp plays Sweeney Todd in this tale of revenge, the sort of which have been rehearsed before us time and again, in all forms possible. Todd sails into a London filled with vermin, after having spent 15 years in an Australian prison, for a crime he never committed. Standard that. Hard to stifle a yawn. 15 years ago he was an innocent barber in possession of a beautiful wife, until she caught the eye of evil Judge Turin (Alan Rickman) who has Todd arrested. As he walks into his place on Fleet Street, which was his shop previously and now is Mrs. Lovett’s (Bonham Carter) home of the worst pies in the whole of London, he learns his loving wife had committed suicide and his daughter Johanna is in the clutches of Turin caged seemingly forever. Revenge is the dish on the menu now, with the erstwhile barber a barbarian now.
It is a highly stylized atmosphere much in the tradition of any Burton film, who is a brilliant designer of atmosphere (Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands). But then, much in the very same tradition, it almost has no other recommending feature by the way of substance. For a musical that needs to boast of some sort of energy, some sort of momentum, howsoever dark, howsoever misanthropic in tone, the proceedings here have an obligatory flow to them. Each slit throat, I suspect, was supposed to induce a reaction of immense shock. Instead all we muster is another attempt at stifling the yawn, as each of them is reduced to B-slasher movie production values. Been there, seen that is the resident feeling. There’s the chair, the execution chair of the barber but it seems to be largely ignored. So is the broken mirror into which every customer would look into. There’s great many avenues at mythology surrounding them bubbling in my mind, some of them which i would have liked the film to ponder upon a bit.
On the precious few occasions when this spasmodic venture seems to have a caught a new breath of wind in its lungs, it dissipates it in another obligatory boring number. The problem is the actors, who aren’t exactly as good singers. Depp, playing the degraded, vengeful soul is all monotone, quite wonderfully of a singular note. The greatest of actors acquire the surroundings, the notes, the execution what their directors create around them, and Depp is one such name. His Todd has only revenge in his mind, on the inside, on the outside and all around him. It is a grim character and Depp plays him with as much panache as possible. It is the singing that does him in though. Depp was previously a lead singer from some group, and though his vocals come across as assured, they do not rouse us with the negative exhilaration they’re supposed to. It is not enjoyable, foot tapping numbers that should be accompanying such dark material, but what we seek is an encore, a passion in the revenge that is deserving of the singular totality of his mind, that metes out some sort of justice to the dark times it speaks of. What we expect is the spirit of vigilantism, what we get is some unpleased barber.
In such a scenario, where the central figure is monochromatic, it comes to the characters surrounding him to lend agility. Mrs. Lovett, who aids Todd in his quest, is a character that is required to be sprightly, a counterpoint to the largely lifeless Todd. Instead Bonham Carter is even more of an exercise in the dull. She is a wonderful actress, believe me, but her singing is rather inept. We feel the pains she is taking to pronounce every word as carefully as possible, which sometimes overshadow the feeling, the subtext at hand. Similar is the case with Depp, and whenever both of them sing, what we feel like is dialogues have been put to music. They might as well have been talking, with sentences and periods, and we wouldn’t be concerned either way one wee bit. Listening to them vocalizing, I realized for the first time that ‘piss’ and ‘this’ rhyme, and find myself disturbed for some reason. Last year, we had Dreamgirls and Jennifer Hudson, and that was a rousing exercise in the singing department.
It is all left to Sondheim’s original score, and that is all that lends this film any degree of life. There is a degree of Bernard Herrmann, and Psycho to it, especially during the last stabbing. It shrieks and that is where we know this is horror. Burton covers his London in soot all the time, save one scene, and much of it is just shades of black. Dark, darker and darkest.
The ending few minutes do affect us, but then the strange and the macabre have always had it easy on us. Compared to the spiral into the evil and the vicious and its ghastly effects, goodness is considerably difficult to pull off. This is as much a musical as Psycho was about stolen money. The thing about great films, and for that matter the very good ones, is a reason why they’re what they’re. Why is There Will Be Blood the force of nature it is than a straight out epic drama? Why is No Country for Old Men a crime thriller concealing its true nature? The answer to these is simple, and the reason why they are what they are. With Sweeny Todd, there’s no reason for it to be a musical, other than that it is one, and most times productions like these are known as travesties. Dropping into songs is just an interesting exercise, being a musical is just an interesting angle. With a dead end. Next I hear, there will be a gangster musical with an embarrassing Robert De Niro and a hamming Al Pacino squaring off their vocal chords. Oh! I hope no one heard me. Hush! Hush!


Let me sing it for you straight and loud –


Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
On the American Shore, better not set your feet
Two paragons of dark walk in the day
Chigurh and Plainview making hay
Darkness around you is routine and bore
Tiresome to wade in the soot, revenge the only oar

Those angels have coffers, of every which kind
They open it all and the world will be blind.

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