Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower, Ed Sanders, Jayne Wisener, Sacha Baron Cohen, Laura Michelle Kelly

MPAA Rating:  (for graphic bloody violence)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 12/21/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The material, a Gothic yarn of bloody revenge, seems specially suited for the macabre hand of Tim Burton, but alas, such is not the case. To compliment Burton's ability to transport us into worlds—here an ominous one that bares a striking resemblance of 19th century London—as seen through the prism of a nightmare would be redundant. That's why in theory his helming of Stephen Sondheim's dark Broadway musical seems right and why for a decent amount of time the movie works as pure visual spectacle.

It is dark, dreary, and full of sinister bombast, driven by grungy production design, eloquently monochromatic cinematography, and Sondheim's music augmented and enriched to blast the doors off the theater. Then the story proper kicks in, and it becomes sadly apparent that Burton simply isn't the right choice for a musical. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street suffers in the same ways Burton's other, shadowy ventures have succeeded. His cold aesthetics and distanced storytelling do not lend the material any momentum, and the whole affair feels lethargic when it should be lively, monotone when it should be matching Sondheim's musical intricacy.

After some awesome opening credits, Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) returns to London on a ship. A young man named Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) is excited (His surname is no less than Hope), but Sweeney compares the city to a great, black pit, full of people who are full of something that rhymes with pit. Sweeney is the eternally gloomy party-pooper for good reason. He has been wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years, separated from his wife and baby daughter. When he returns to his old barbershop on Fleet Street, he meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who runs a shop under his old one and makes the worst meat pies in London.

She fills him in on the news of what happened to the family of Benjamin Barker, now Sweeney, after he was taken away. The malicious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who devised Sweeney's extradition, tricked his wife to a party, where he drugged and raped her. In shame, she apparently killed herself, and Sweeney's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is now Turpin's ward. Taking up the tools of his old trade—a glistening set of silver razors—Sweeney vows revenge.

He reestablishes his old business by exposing hair tonic salesman Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) as a fraud and a second-rate shaver, and soon enough, Turpin's weaselly assistant Beadle (who else but Timothy Spall) has his master at Sweeney's shop. Circumstances beyond his control—namely the fact that Turpin learns of hopeless romantic Anthony plot to steal Johanna away—shoo Sweeney's prey from the shop, and in his frustration, he has an epiphany (in the appropriately titled song "Epiphany"). Turpin is evil, no doubt (The movie's biggest laugh finds him imposing a harsh sentence on a young criminal), but there are plenty of other evil people in London needing a close shave.

With the prospect of bodies piling up, Mrs. Lovett has another plan to help her acquire meat for her pies, which is quite scarce. Sliced throats and cannibalism in a dingy London setting sound grisly, and the production matches that tone. The production design by the incomparable Dante Ferretti is dingy minimalism. Sweeney's bare, rundown shop with the view of smokestacks billowing from the windows provides the backdrop for the bright red blood that flows. Dariusz Wolski's drab cinematography captures the era and the tone. Sondheim's score sounds fantastic. Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick (from the original Broadway show) has taken the accompaniment and made it rich and complex.

The movie works because of these elements, but then even they begin to wear thin. The look and music hold the movie together, but Burton is so focused on the tone the storytelling falls apart. Burton has made a career of compensating for his weakness as a storyteller with his visual flair, but here it's a necessary but still too heavy weight on the narrative. It becomes monotonous. A flash of ghastly humor as we see Sweeney's victims fall through a trapdoor only to have their corpses crunched at the end of the drop is repeated until it loses its impact. That sequence, then, serves as a microcosm for the whole production.

Burton stages everything statically (The "Epiphany" number is a notable exception; the thrust of Sondheim's music and the mania of Sweeney's determination give the movie a burst of energy that's never recaptured), and the pacing is more than occasionally lurching. Johnny Depp handles the lyrical and melodic complexity of Sondheim's songs well (Far from opera, he and Helena Bonham Carter use character-based voices), but his Todd is always a morose blank, whether he's brooding over memories of his lost family, slashing the throats of the general populace, or even participating in Mrs. Lovett's daydream of a potentially happy life together.

By the end, Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's story veers toward the classical structure of a tragedy, but Burton has disassociated us so far from the characters and the story there's no reason for concern. Some might take the theory that Burton directing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the right choice to its logical next step, but in practice, it leaves much to be desired.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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