Sunday, February 24, 2008

Finally seen "Sweeney Todd"

A prosperous London barber in the days when men were compelled regularly to bare their throats to be shaved by comparative (and often disreputable-looking) strangers, Todd routinely murders the unsuspecting patrons of his Fleet Street 'tonsorial parlour'.

from the introduction to "Sweeney Todd. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

If you follow this blog regularly - or at least have for the last couple of weeks - you already know I was waiting impatiently for the new Tim Burton movie "Sweeney Todd". Yesterday I went to the movies to see it - and I had not waited in vain.

I already had a basic idea of what to expect from the movie - after all, I did also read a reprint of the original penny dreadful that features the story of the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" this weekend. But between 'what I expect' and 'what I really get' there can be quite some differences. In the case of this movie, the reality exceeded my expectations.

Of course, given the story and the director, I expected quite some bloodshed - which I got. But there's many ways to shed blood, from crude to quite artistically (that might sound a bit odd, but if you've watched as many horror b-movies as I have, you know how to spot the difference). There are many ways to show how people die, even if the method always remains the same. Burton makes good use of this fact, without stepping over the bounds from 'still mostly scary, though dripping with blood' to 'outright gross'. And in a world predominated by colours like black, dark browns, shades of grey and dirty whites and yellows, the vivid red of the victims' blood stands out even more clearly.

But, as good as the story - and Sondheim's music - are by their own rights, a movie also lives through the talents and abilities of the actors. And all actors appearing on screen more than once show the right abilities for the characters they're playing.

The tragic 'hero' of the story (for Todd in Sondheim's version isn't just killing for the profits, he seeks revenge for his fate as much as for that of his wife and daughter) is played by Johnny Depp, not only giving the Demon Barber an intense, brooding look, but also lending a surprisingly good singing voice. As the movie features more sung than spoken words (a lot of the action takes place without anything said), that's a good thing. (It's also a good thing that the sung parts are only subtitled and not replaced by the German voices in the German version.)

At Todd's side stands - as it should be, given the story goes that way - his lover and partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, played and sung by Helena Bonham Carter.

On the opposite side of the board - even though that's not the side of the good guys in this story - we find the 'honourable' Judge Turpin, played by Alan Rickman (who's only singing twice, both times parts of the same duet with Johnny Depp), giving the audience a good understanding for the lust of revenge that drives Todd to his mass murders. His aide, played by Timothy Spall, also doesn't exactly show any redeeming qualities, so you could claim they both deserve what they get in the end. (A slit throat and a fall to the stone floor in the cellars.)

A bit of romance is provided on the side, but the fates of the young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Todd's daughter Johanna ([played by Jayne Wisener] who has been raised and almost is also married by Turpin) are never fully laid open, so what happens to them after the fateful night in which Todd's killing spree - and Turpin's life - are ended, remains open.

I have to admit that - even without spoiling too much (you can expect the bad guy to die at the end of a Hollywood movie, can't you, so Turpin's demise isn't really a surprise at all) - the end of the movie really touched me. Even though it's far from the regular 'Hollywood Happy End', it is a happy end of sorts, at least for Todd. (Mrs. Lovett would probably disagree.)

The movie itself is intense. It's sometimes only a span of seconds between a funny event and the next slit throat. (And the moment the partners in crime realize what to do with the corpses of the expected victims, despite the gross topic of cannibalism, is quite a funny one. After all, the prices for meat can really ruin a small business...) The very dark picture of the Victorian era given in the movie - both through the scenes (like the death sentence Turpin gives to a young boy) and through the looks (you won't find any cheery colours outside Mrs. Lovett's dreams of the future) - intensify the underlying feeling of dread that accompanies the audience. In a world that dark and dirty, everything can happen to everyone at all times. (After all, you just have to go for a stroll over the market with your wife and child to be banned from England for life...)

My resume on "Sweeney Todd" therefore is this: If blood and a lot of singing don't worry you and you like good, albeit dark stories, you shouldn't miss the movie. But if you can't stand people being killed for just walking into the wrong barber shop, better find another one.

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