Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Well, this was supposed to be a review of August Rush, but that seems to have left the theaters. (You'll definitely read about it once it's out on DVD!) Instead, I elected to see and write about Sweeney Todd.

This is a story that has popped up for me more than once. I remember reading the back of a VHS of the 1936 movie as a child, and being disturbed by it. Perhaps this is why, when playing “barbershop”, my best friend and I unceremoniously threw our “patrons” (stuffed animals) behind the couch after they were done. (Her mother explained that this was no way to treat paying customers.) I think my first exposure to the Stephen Sondheim score was a hilarious scene from Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl. (Sadly this song is different in the movie.) Most recently, I went through a “Sweeney Todd” vignette at the London of the scarier and more effective parts of the Dungeon.

Let's start with the obvious: Johnny Depp singing! He does a good job; his singing voice sounds, strangely, exactly like you'd expect it to. I tend to agree with the reviews which have said that Helena Bonham-Carter's voice is a bit on the fragile side.

Somehow, both Depp and Bonham-Carter manage to create very sympathetic characters out of their brutal anti-heroes. You feel sorry for Todd, who has suffered a lot through not fault of his own; and Ms. Lovett's very typical domestic aspirations are both incongruous and endearing. About the time that we actually see how Todd's victims are disposed of, it occurred to me that she was the one who was really hard-core...after all, Sweeney only cut people's throats! To me, however, the most disturbing story-arc involved Alan Rickman's character, and his cross-generational amorous exploits.

There are two twists at the that you see coming a mile away, and the other one, not so much. There is a happy ending for some characters, but we don't get to see it. Instead, the camera fades out on the sad tableau of characters who seem to have been doomed before the movie started. It kind of makes you wonder what the point was.

Perhaps the point is another vehicle for Tim Burton's vision, the look and sound of his movies...ranging from the surreal to the gritty, but consistently both beautiful and dark. It occurred to me at one point that Todd's razor set was the only thing in the entire movie that was in good condition...including the characters.

Sometimes you think about the strangest things while watching movies. The friend who went with me, a historical reconstructionist, was impressed by the relative accuracy of the costumes. I couldn't help thinking how difficult it would be to pull off a such a succession of murders without running water. I am also grateful for improvements in the justice system and social safety net since the Victorian Era, both in England and the US. (Let's be mindful not to lose those gains, because they are eroding.)

I would say that this movie makes a good holiday diversion. If you can't handle movie violence at all, you obviously don't want to see it; but if you can handle some, as long as it's not gratuitous, you should be okay with Sweeney Todd. It doesn't register nearly as high as it could on the gross-out scale, either.

I would be interested to see this musical with all of the songs that were cut for the film, and with singers who could really blow it out of the water. Most of all, though, Sweeney Todd made me wish that they would make a screen version of the musical Jeckyll and Hyde. Perhaps Johnny Depp or Gerard Butler could play the leads...or maybe Australian singer Anthony Warlow, who sang the roles for an official recording. Any other suggestions?

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