Saturday, December 15, 2007

sweeney todd: the demon barber of fleet street

At this point, I'm convinced Johnny Depp could fly if he wanted to – he doesn't of course, least he make us feel bad for our own shortcomings. But believe me, he could do it – or anything else he elects to accomplish. Playing a homicidal barber, with a remarkable, pain drenched tenor, forcing us to take him seriously despite a horrendous fright wig? Please, that's child's play.

There are only three things that are certain in a Tim Burton film – a Johnny Depp, a desaturated color palette, and blood. Lots and lots of blood. On all three accounts, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, fails to disappoint. Depp delivers a mature, emotionally evolved performance. Characters and ghosts haunt the night, cloaked in detail-free shadow. Blood coats the screen, at one point splashing the camera. In short, this is not a film for the weak of heart.

Much of the terror is derived, as one might expect, from the simple premise of having a stranger hold a sharp object to your neck. Or more correctly, audience terror is derived from streams of characters not recognizing this hidden danger1. Burton invests himself in the same macabre love affair Todd experiences with his razors. All the shaving implements are shot in intimate close-ups usually reserved for the leading lady. At one point, Todd extends one blade to the heavens screaming, "At last, my arm is complete again!" You can almost feel Burton's glee growing in proportion to his leading man's dark side, marked audibly by the tell-tale sounds of razor sharpening. By the time the blood starts flying – and there's lots of it - the violence is almost a second thought, a release from the dreadful anticipation.

Thankfully Burton's glee is not without its lighter side. The clown of Sleepy Hollow, Depp is Sweeney Todd's titular angst-ridden straight man, leaving the humor to Helena Bonham Carter’s cheerfully practical yet maniacal Mrs. Lovett, and the surprisingly subdued Sacha Baron Cohen as a rival barber. However, the real supporting actor award belongs to Alan Rickman, upper-crust British accent interjecting every line with a subtle sinister subtext. Even when not perpetrating some of the film's more disturbing crimes, his very presence denotes the true embodiment of evil, cloaked handsomely in a protective patrician wrapper.

Addapted from the hit Stephen Sondheim play, Sweeney Todd proves once and for all that Burton is a master not only of style, but of substance2. Every elemental choice ties directly back to the Todds' - and by extension, the film's - moral and ethical dilemma. Even when the film dallies in the ingenues' romantic subplot, the audience is never once allowed to forget how high the stakes have become. By the time Sweeney’s quest reaches its inevitable, visceral conclusion, the audience is left exhausted, gasping, and perhaps... a bit bloody.

1. Time and time again, I find myself thankful I was born with two x chromosomes. I shouldn’t be trusted to hold sharp objects to my own neck, let alone allow an anonymous man take control of my grooming habits.
2. Admittedly this is a argument I’ve always sided with Tim Burton on... but a point - for the unbelievers - that needs to be made none the less.

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