Thursday, 24 January 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Review by Carmody Wilson

Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: John Logan
Running Time: 117 mins
Certificate: 18
Released: January 25th

In a burst and a flash the wee maquette London is torn into focus as an ill-lit and lowly ship creeps down the Thames. Menace and filth cover every shadow, characters sneer and snivel, and there is a sense of dread, doom, and …denouement, as the singing begins.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd has a flicker of promise soon blown out by the trappings of The Musical - big songs (and too many), matchstick characters, and overblown sensationalism that leaves little to be desired. Johnny Depp again escapes the blame somehow, posing, prancing and snarling his way through the title role in a way only cheated by the shadow-play treatment of his character given to him by Burton. His smooth, unshowy vocals are, while not a surprise, certainly a break from the usual trembly histrionics present in The X-Factor and West End musicals. Helena Bonham Carter does her creepy doll schtick well, making her debut song, sung in a high-pitched “shower only” voice, mostly bearable.

The West End does seep in in the form of love-struck sailor Anthony; whose-quivering vibrato is almost as disturbing as his quivering loins. Joining this trilling threesome is the rat-like Timothy Spall as an oily beadle thrall to Alan Rickman’s sinister Turpin, a duo that’s quite disturbing. Rickman follows in Rex Harrison’s musical tradition; sparing us his nasally drone in song form, choosing instead to talk his way through his few numbers. Sounds like a lot of singing, doesn’t it?

Burton’s typical cobwebbed hand gives 19th century London a dirty and dismal feel, which is just right for the sinister deeds done at Mrs Lovett’s, but all of this atmosphere is laid to waste with the shallow song and event based format of the musical. Nothing is given a chance to build. When Benjamin Barker comes back form exile, we are told of his motivations for revenge against Turpin. We are told that he will have vengeance. We are told that Mrs Lovett is in love with him, and we are told every thing every character thinks and feels, through songs, so that what plot surprises do exist fall flat. This musical theatre format does not suit film, where camera angles, special effects, great dialogue, subtle acting, and imaginative cinematography replace the need for stagey and one-dimensional actions and plot motivators. This is not to say that musical theatre has no place in the world, rather it seems rather ridiculous that a grand, operatic plot like Sweeney Todd’s should be shown in papier mache musical format on film, when it could be a cracking gothic horror film instead, with all the musical machinations removed. Sweeney Todd feels like a wasted opportunity.

There is one particular delight that must be mention amid all this muckraking - evidence of Burton’s grim humour is present amid all the goody-two-shoeing of the acting. Once Todd has dispatched his victims with a deadly flourish, they are then tipped back into an opening in the floor and land in the room below with a thudding smack on their venerable heads. Each and every time. When there is a victim Burton takes delight in showing him the ultimate indignity, and the grossness of their skull splitting is the only thing to remind us of Burton’s famed dark humour. Naught else about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleer Street is as formidable as a few busted heads.

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