Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)

Unlike most people, I approached Tim Burton's big-screen take on Steven Sondheim's Broadway classic with some trepidation. Perhaps that's because of my mixed feelings toward Burton's career. Burton has become Hollywood's Prince of Darkness, but I've always found his work to be sort of juvenile, though sometimes in fascinating ways. In the past, his best films have worked primarily as magic realism, with misunderstood man-children and baby-doll women, and chock full of lovely, off-kilter imagery. But his vision is rarely as dark as his fans insist it is- at his heart, Burton isn't a nihilistic soul but a goth romantic who grew up Fangoria and Vincent Price. Which makes him the right director for Batman and Sleepy Hollow, certainly, but Sweeney Todd is much harsher stuff. Could he manage it? Turns out I needn't have worried. Sweeney is easily the bleakest film in Burton's oeuvre, not shying away from the more unpleasant undercurrents of Sondheim's original version. Occasional trips into the more comfortable climes of Burton-land were initially distracting, but after a while I realized that Burton was actually complicating his beloved, almost schticky style. In this regard, Sweeney Todd is Burton's most self-aware film. The world inhabited by Sweeney (Johnny Depp) and Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) is an unforgiving one, figuratively putting people through the meat grinder even before the protagonists make the metaphor literal. So whenever the film escapes into the familiar Burton look, it's always a signal of the innocence and hope that Sweeney has long since lost. Such trifles are for the young and foolish in Sondheim's world, and Burton underlines this in the fantasy number when Mrs. Lovett dons an outfit that makes her look uncannily like Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. But even in this fantasy, Sweeney will have none of this. Much like Hamlet, his thoughts be bloody, and Burton obliges them with plenty of throat-slashings and arterial splatter (Sweeney Todd might be a musical, but leave the kids at home). But Burton isn't simply indulging the gorehounds in the crowd- he's exorcising his more sinister demons, the ones that are often glossed over in his work but occasionally peek their heads out, as in Batman Returns. The key moment in the film comes near the end, when Sweeney has discovered his disguised daughter hiding in his flat, and when called away on urgent business, he (not knowing who she is) tells her to forget his face. Time will tell if this is the case, but I interpreted this as Burton's way of telling those who love him for his more cuddly work to turn back and remember him for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. But rather than staying with the girl, the movie follows Sweeney to the terrible, inevitable end. Sweeney Todd isn't perfect- HBC's singing voice would have been dubbed had she not been married to the director- but it's riveting throughout. Rating: 8 out of 10.

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