Sunday, 25 October 2009

There's a hole in the world like a great black pit and it's filled with people who are filled with shit! And the vermin of the world inhabit it...

No 490 - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Director - Tim Burton

Tim Burton has created a nice little niche for himself. I love the man, I love his films, I love his style and I love his directorial vision but he does have a very distinctive style. Gothic fairytale with aspects of horror. Which is usually delivered in a style which isn't too horrific. Burton's full on Gothic nightmares are few and far between. The only other one I can really think of is Sleepy Hollow. This is the first one which revels in the gore and pain and torture. This is Burton at his darkest and most intense.
This is also a far more complex musical than Corpse Bride. I am a massive fan of Danny Elfman (another very distinctive artist with a very recognisable theme), however he cannot compete with the richness and complicated styles of Sondheim. The songs in this are a beast to play and an utter nightmare to sing.

Yet, despite these challenges the film is a quintessential Burton film, and drips with familiarity. Take the opening titles. In fact, take the opening titles of any Tim Burton film. They all convey a journey. Seriously. Go and watch one, they really do.
In this film we follow the trail of blood from the barber's chair to the Thames.
The only difference is that in this journey we're not accompanied by Danny Elfman's scores. Instead we have the epic instrumental of The Tale of Sweeney Todd. This makes me a bit sad because it is my favourite song in the play (full of pomp and OTT operatics) but did not fit the world that Burton had created.

The world of the film is savage. I have seen the film a few times and have been fortunate enough to see a couple of different stage versions, however I'm still surprised how dark the tale is.
With theatre it is subverted, you cannot show. You mostly imply. Cinema does not have these limitations.
The film has a very muted palette, dirty greys and muddy sepia tones. Broken only by the vibrant red of blood. The blood is so bright and so red that it never looks real. It is just an over exaggerated version of the horror. And oh what horror.

The characters themselves are all horrible, but almost all of them are fantastic to watch. I wish to begin with the exception. Anthony and Joanna - the young love interest. It seems almost traditional that the love interest will have the weakest songs. But it also has the weakest characters. Anthony is a massive wet drip, considering he is a sailor you'd think he was a tougher person. Not only that but Jamie Campbell Bower seems far too young to play the part. He is a very baby faced 19 year old. Joanna doesn't have much to do in this film besides get locked away in places (bedrooms, asylums, chests). The two are not very interesting. Contrary to that is the fabulous cameo character of Pirelli.
Sacha Baron Cohen truly shines as the exaggerated idiot of an Italian. But it plays to his strengths, and he is genuinely witty and a primping showboating joy to watch. It takes a lot to steal the show in a film so laden with talent that the mighty Anthony Stewart Head only gets one line, but steal the show he does.
Moving on to a trio of death eaters who also shine in this film. Starting with the baddies. The Beadle, played by Timothy Spall with a horrible sleazy, cowardly, vermin style which seems to characterise his more recent cinema outings. He is fabulous, his every movement almost dripping - he is so gloriously hateable. Moving on to Judge Turpin. Whilst not so outwardly and aesthetically repulsive (his wardrobe alone makes me wish I was a wealthy Victorian), the film takes great pains to illustrate just how cruel and perverse he is. A rapist, a bully, a sexual deviant. He is not a nice man.
On the other hand, Alan Rickman is a genius and plays the character with such subtlety. He comes off as bitter and tired and self centred. Whereas he could have come off as a cliche villain. But that is because Alan Rickman is brilliant. I hope you all love Alan Rickman.

We come to the last of our Harry Potter trio and to the beginning of the central pairing. Helena Bonham Carter always seems to get stick for her roles in her husband's films. As if she hasn't earned them. She is wonderful in this (again I think she is wonderful in a lot of things - one of the real highlights of Harry Potter) and her character is beautifully complex. The mix of wanting to make things better for Sweeney, but also trying to seduce him. The strange sensual, pitiful, grimy quality of her character. Watching her character blossom throughout the film. See By The Sea, for a rare splash of vibrant colour (plus Burton favourite of black and white stripes) and for Mrs Lovett's characterisation coming out in full.
She is a wonderful character and her death is the most horrific of all.

This film benefits from the fabulous cast (and the fabulous deaths). I've spoken about most of them but need to mention the most familiar part of any Tim Burton film, the mighty Johnny Depp. Depp is a formidable actor, and initially I was worried that he might be going a bit too Jack Sparrah in his role as Todd, but that was a massively misplaced fear - based on nothing but a cockney accent.
However Todd's character is beautifully displayed. I don't want to sit and recite the entire plot, but you have to accept that no one in this film has a good time, it is nothing but tragedy and woe. There are some amazingly sad single moments (such as the part where Todd is reunited with his wife and daughter without realising) but the true tragedy is Todd's descent.
With the exception of the flashbacks, Todd is never truly happy. He begins the film bitter and angry and hellbent on revenge, a surly ashen man with a lot on his mind. Gradually he lets the blood lust over come him. By the point he kills Mrs Lovett he is almost a demon, his blood smeared face glistening in the roaring fire.

The horror does not come from the (almost caricature) blood.
The horror comes from Todd's insanity.


Sarah said...

Stop watching my favourite films without me!!!!

PhilH said...

This was one of those films where I left the cinema and expected someone to jump up behind me and slit my throat.

Awesome film. Weird journey home, though.

Elena Ralli said...

Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and the great black pit (a.k.a. London)...This is heaven! :P

Ibusuki said...

I'm honestly starting to think that we have completely opposite taste in films...