Thursday, 20 April 2017

FIVE STAR FILM: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (UK/ USA, 2007)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall

One of the main accusations about Tim Burton is that he has essentially made the same film for more than thirty years. Burton's status as a latter-day auteur, with a distinctive visual style and approach to storytelling, has frequently left him open to the criticism that he is repeating himself. 'Burtonian' may not be as widespread an adjective as Kubrickian, Lynchian or Hitchcockian, but it comes with both the same pressure to live up to early promise and the same pitfalls of focussing on style at the expense of substance - a peril I discussed at length in my review of Wild at Heart.

 
It cannot be denied that Burton has had moments in his career where his heart just hasn't been in it - usually when he has wandered out of his Gothic comfort zone to make a quick buck, as was the case with Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes. But between the latter and the calamity that was Alice in Wonderland, Burton hit a purple patch with three films which reiterated just what a creative genius he can be at his best. Having set the bar high with Big Fish and followed it up splendidly with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he then delivered this film, which sits comfortably alongside Ed Wood as the crowning glory of his career.
 
If nothing else is true about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd hereafter), it is a fantastic riposte to the notion that Burton had somehow grown soft and sentimental in his middle age. This was always a rather rich comment, given that some of his earlier work, like Batman Returns, had been (unfairly) criticised for being too dark and cold. But for those who found Big Fish too cheerful, this is the perfect antidote, returning us to the grim, dark world, at once oppressive and fantastic, that Burton has made his own.
When Mark Kermode reviewed the film on BBC Radio 5 Live, he described it as "the flipside of Edward Scissorhands", talking about how the look and manner of Johnny Depp's performance was a twisted inversion of that film's protagonist, turning Edward's innocent harming of those he loved into a conscious murderous crusade. There are also huge similarities in approach to Sleepy Hollow, not only with the 18-certificate violence but the emphasis on period detail and a community feeding on itself (quite literally, of course).
 
The story of Sweeney Todd is one of the hardiest in English literature, with its origins stretching back to the penny dreadfuls of Charles Dickens' day and the early fallout of the Industrial Revolution. As British cities rapidly expanded as people flocked from the countryside, public fears abounded about rising crime and unscrupulous business practices - including the means by which food was now being manufactured. The first appearance of Benjamin Barker, in 1846's The String of Pearls, married the fear of cannibalism to barbers of the day serving as surgeons - the red and white poles outside barbers' shops symbolised the blood and bandages of their secondary trade.
 
Burton sets out his intentions for Sweeney Todd in the elaborate opening credits, demonstrating both his fidelity to Stephen Sondheim's musical and his intrinsic understanding of its themes and tone. The mixing of blood and water, first in the clouds and finally in the sewers, is a brilliant visual metaphor for the way in which violence and vengeance contaminate everything they touch. Sondheim's overture, at once brooding and hysterical, puts us right in the edgy mood required for the plot to have impact, so that the second that Depp appears on screen, we feel intimidated.
 
Perhaps no film since Get Carter (or possibly The Last House on the Left) has so perfectly captured the self-destructive nature of revenge - how those bent on vengeance end up becoming consumed by their own misguided obsession. The initial telling of Lucy's apparent demise leads us to sympathise (at least somewhat) with Sweeney's plight, but by the time he has killed for the first time he has already crossed over into darkness. Eventually he becomes so fixated on killing Judge Turpin that he doesn't even recognise the woman he loved, slitting her throat without saying a word to her. Burton's rendering of both her death and Sweeney's are both graphic and beautiful, using their blood in a manner that would make Dario Argento proud.
 
The film is also interested in the complicity of all society in Sweeney's schemes, either by their direct involvement (Mrs Lovett and Toby) or their failure to intervene and stop him. One of the central lines comes outside the Old Bailey, when Judge Turpin asks Beadle Bamford whether the boy he just sentenced to death was guilty. Bamford mutters, "Well if he didn't do it, he had surely done something to warrant the hanging", to which Turpin replies, "What man has not?". What sounds like a platitude out of context is actually a telling remark on how society feeds on itself with no real regard for right and wrong - a theme later reflected in the song 'A Little Priest'.
 
This brings us on to the singing, one of the main bones of contention among fans of the original musical. If you are expecting the actors to sing with the rounded, showy polish exhibited on Broadway or the West End (the kind of performance that always looks rubbish on film), then you will be disappointed. But while the tone of the piece is decidedly operatic - all big emotions and hearts worn on sleeves - the subject matter lends itself to a rougher, more angular style of delivery. Depp and Helena Bonham Carter sing very well, and the fact that they don't sound like naturally rounded singers works entirely to their benefit.
 
The supporting cast beyond Depp and Carter is also really strong. The late Alan Rickman is perfectly cast as Judge Turpin, a part which, like Hans Gruber in Die Hard, is at turns darkly funny and deeply threatening. He sings like a deep bassoon and relishes being lecherous without ever over-playing it. Timothy Spall, who previously proved his singing credentials in Topsy-Turvy, struts through his part like a proud toad, again striking a balance between comedy and intimidation. And Sacha Baron Cohen, fresh off the back of Borat, gives one of his finest performances as Adolfo Pirelli; he's so charmingly ridiculous that he almost steals the show.
 
Sweeney Todd also succeeds in marrying Sondheim's darkly comic lyrics to Burton's distinctive visual imagery. The cramped and dank streets of London are like the corrupted, industrialised descendants of Sleepy Hollow, and Dariusz Wolski (who shot Dark City) brings out the deep reds and sharp silvers to create a world which is both gruesome and painstakingly beautiful. The city seems to stretch forever, like a nightmarish labyrinth with Sweeney and Mrs Lovett as its Minotaurs, while the seaside scene hilariously juxtaposes Burton's designs with a sugary setting. Best of all is the closing scene, which borrows from The Third Man and the 'Acid Queen' sequence in Ken Russell's Tommy to conjure up a truly masterful climax.
 
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a stupendous triumph of a film, which both honours its source material and brings a unique approach to a well-worn story. Burton's storytelling and direction are absolutely superb, bringing out the rich, murky substance of the story while never neglecting its dark sense of humour. The visuals are stunning and the gore is wonderfully executed (ha ha), but we also care deeply about the characters. It is easily Burton's best film since Ed Wood, and ten years on it remains essential viewing.

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NEXT REVIEW: Spectre (2015)

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