Saturday, January 19, 2008

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

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

The delight one gains from watching Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton's film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's well-regarded stage musicale about the legendary barber who kills his clients by slitting their throats before mixing them into the meat pies of his landlady, can be summarized by the film's penultimate moment: a crimson-black hued tableau of terrible and undefinable beauty, morbid and irresistible all at the same time. The tale of the titular demon barber has evolved from news item of unverified sources to rumor-worthy grotesquery before turning into a literary work, into a film, into a fine musical play by Sondheim, and finally, this terrifyingly gorgeous movie, a product of a perfect marriage of material and artists, of the murderous barber's distorted story of human depravity set into song by Sondheim with his astounding meshing of cords, melodies and lyrics, and Burton's distinguished visual assuredness, narrative competence, and thematic consistency. Like that penultimate tableau, the entirety of Sweeney Todd dwells in the vicious, the cruel, the absurd, and the macabre yet still remains an undeniable thing of beauty.

Burton's aesthetic style willingly veers from pretty into grotesque territory as Industrial Age-London with its skies darkened with soot and smoke seems to be forever drenched in a gray and sun-deprived haze. The centerpiece of this enunciated gloom is Mrs. Lovett's building in Fleet Street with its ground level subbing as a meat pie store, characterized by an unhealthy mix of dust, questionable meat, flour, and cockroaches, and its second floor renovated to be Sweeney Todd's barbershop, with a lone chair surrounded by a bevy of glass from a ceiling of dusty windows overlooking the bleak neighborhood, to the solitary mirror, broken into dozens of pieces thus reflecting only fractured images of their faces. The fitting occupants of the decrepit building are Todd (Johnny Depp) and Ms. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) whose appearances outdo their already stylized environment of damp and dimly colored cobblestone streets and dour living quarters. Their faces are deathly pale with shadows clinging under their seemingly empty eyes. Their manes are absurdly disheveled, Lovett's faintly copper-hued hair is in perpetual chaos while Todd's is made more prominent by a streak of white, further emphasizing the obsession that has consumed him. Their wardrobes are composed of dusty and tattered clothes colored in shades of black, white, gray and dull variations of lighter and more active hues, hinting of what they probably were in a previous life, possibly a decent barber's uniform or a lady's lavish gown. Todd and Lovett's present state however is purged of whatever remnant of humanity they once had. They are doomed and hopeless, walking monsters still among the living for their villainous objectives: for Todd, the violent deaths of his oppressors and for Lovett, the belated emotional and monetary rewards of her unrequited adoration for Todd.

Purists might prefer the powerful vocalizations of George Hearn and Angela Lansbury as more appropriate for Sondheim's music. However, the movie has Todd and Lovett conspire on their wicked plans in whispers, careful that none of their plans escape the confines of the barbershop. Similarly, they sing the same way making Depp's raspy tenor, sometimes escalating into tortured bursts of vocals, and Bonham-Carter's rickety soprano, uncomfortably resting on the fringes of Sondheim's complicated notes, surprisingly pitch-perfect for the cinematic characters Burton envisioned them to be, otherworldly semblances of their depleted humanities. As a result of such consistency, these characters maintain the tremendous burdens their little frail and near-dead souls carry as they shift from dialogue to song.

There's no question that Todd has fallen far from grace after he has been unduly exiled by his nemesis Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). His redemption is improbable most especially after his "Epiphany" where he becomes convinced of the little value of life. Todd, as Burton has visualized him, exists for one solitary purpose: to rid London of Turpin and his henchman Beadle (Timothy Spall) and the completion of such is for him his salvation. In comparison, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the young sailor who falls in love with Todd's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) who opens the film with a song about his experiences traveling with his large eyes reflecting the starry London night, seems to have landed in London, crossing paths with Todd and later with his daughter fortuitously for another purpose, to rescue Johanna and find a future with her. During Anthony's opening verse of optimistic wonderment, Todd's face enters the frame to caution him. Their two faces are juxtaposed emphasizing the differences of these two men despite their similarity in goal. Anthony is wide-eyed with hope while Todd's eyes are blank with his desperate murderous objective.

Lovett on the other hand has Toby (Ed Sanders), the little boy she rescues from the clutches of Italian barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). Both of them are exemplars of devotion: Lovett's is misguided and fueled both by greed and desire for Todd while Toby's is sourced from loyalty and innocence. In the song "Not While I'm Around," the duet where Toby pledges to protect Lovett from evil referring to Todd whom he discovers has ill motives, the differences again become apparent: Toby sings with angelic precision while Lovett, now accompanied by discordant violins, warbles the same lyrics but doesn't quite strike you as harmonious or sincere to the noble promises of the song.

These thematically-driven relationships between the characters, well above the more obvious narratively-driven ones, are just some of the further observations propelled by Burton's meticulous direction. Sweeney Todd, I believe, is a wonderful adaptation of the musicale. Burton fills the film with lifeless objects that reflect the atmosphere of hopelessness and depravity: sooty windows, broken mirrors, smoky chimneys, wet cobblestone streets. More importantly though is the fact that Burton understands that his film adaptation will be utterly worthless against the stage production without utilizing the feats of cinema. Thus, on top of the immaculate production design and Sondheim's already perfect music, Burton populates his film with faces, in close-up detailing the paleness and coldness of their manufactured features, or reflected from the broken mirror or the clear shaving blade, or seen through the dusty windows, or blurred from a distance, or morbidly covered with and turned indistinguishable by his victim's blood. Burton also puts emphasizes on his actors' eyes, sometimes putting the burden of evoking gargantuan emotions and shaded morals just through the depth of a stare.

These fine cinematic touches make the psychology much deeper than what the narrative entails. It adds a certain sexual other than maternal connection between Toby and Lovett when Toby started pledging to protect the latter. It gives you a glimpse into Todd's depraved mental state when out of frustration, he jumps into a fantasy where he starts inviting people into his barber for a shave talking of finding salvation in the fulfillment of his vendetta, before flashing back to reality where he is far from his goal and is alone with Lovett. It pumps Todd's reunion with his shaving blades with a tinge of perversity as he longingly looks, cross-eyed in concentration, at his gleaming metal "friends." The intimacy and unholy communions between Todd and Lovett, stranded in their Fleet Street building, is silently turbulent and internally troubling. Much more than maintaining allegiance with its theatrical roots (as most other movie adaptations of popular musicales) by incorporating the giant gestures (compensating for the stage's inability to transform the theater into a visual replica of the atmosphere of Todd's historic era) and the perfect singing voices as only Broadway or West End would allow, Burton stays true to his being a filmmaker and embellishes the material with just the right details like a surrealistic final tableau, hushed conversations, the imperfect yet apt singing, the dozen fountains of blood inspired by the finest of Italian gialli, eventually turning what already is great into something impressive and memorable.

This review is also published in The Oblation.


Anonymous said...

this is by far your most rambling review. so tim burton adapted the musical for cinema. we get it.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks for reading and paraphrasing my rambling review.

Dr. Zhivago said...

You might be reading too much into the themes driving the characters but I'm yet to watch it so couldn't say for certain. Good thing you hinted this though, coz when I watch Tim Burton's work, I tend not to focus too much on themes but on his visual style which is already worth the cinema ticket.

I saw No Country for Old Men and Lust, Caution during the weekend and boy I was blown away by Lust, Caution. However after reading reviews of No Country for Old Men, I realized I didn't get the richness of the film's meaning (I was too glued on the suspense of the narrative). I hope you will review any of these movies soon so I can compare notes.

I'll watch Sweeney Todd during the weekend.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Dr. Zhivago

I did review No Country for Old Men (which was terrific) and Lust, Caution (which I didn't quite enjoy) a few weeks or months back.

One thing though, if my posts seem to read like an overanalysis of a film, I do intend my reviews to be such, personal appreciation of films I've gotten to watch. I do not subscribe to the school of criticism that is deliberately limited to the confines of what can objectively be gleaned as the only way to keep writing about films in the blogging world interesting and highly individualized is to infuse a review with personal analyses and observations, specific instances that the filmmaker, with his use of cinematic devices, tend to sway the viewer to react a certain way. I'm rambling again.

chard bolisay said...

Got some fans, eh?

Haha I love ramblings. I like the idea of talking about this film but not really talking about it. Makes criticism more personal, more inclined to widely-encompassing observations, and more analytical -- not the type to tick someone off, but that's way out of your control. Advise them to read at their own risk.

Hell Sweeney Todd is ablaze! (Can't wait for Atonement)

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Chard,

It would be a sin to talk about Sweeney Todd without talking about the object depravity that consumes its characters or the majestic visual touches of Burton or the vocal imperfections. There's just so much to chew on and writing is free, so write away. But if you want to know how good the cinematography is, or how great the acting is, or how nice the film overall is, there's Nestor Torre and Butch Francisco available in the Entertainment section of your favorite newspapers.

dodo dayao said...

Agree,oggs. Any “reviewer” who doesn’t bring himself to the art he’s reviewing (i.e.Nestor Torre is a wuss and a hack, in my opinion. Reviews are op-ed pieces anyway,objectivity is for the dogs and I always thought the point of doing these things was to articulate the experience and what it put you through. So get personal and ramble away, I say. Makes better reading. Oh,and congrats. You’ve been getting a lot of “fans”. I made the Dislikes list of someone’s Friendster profile and I assumed it was my music reviews that did it . . .but I stumbled on it by accident. Your "fans" are pissing in your own backyard, so to speak. Well . . . anonymously, which is sort of a cop-out. Well not sort of . . .it is a cop-out. But hey, rambling or no, guy finished the damn thing. Hehe. Just skimmed over it myself to avoid possible spoilers. Will read in full as soon as I watch the movie, which is fast disappearing from theaters, last time I looked so I better git. :)

Mars said...

Wow Oggs, you have fans... That hate you! :) Hahaha. This generally means you're going to be famous soon. Ramble *pun intended* away.

John Santos said...


By all means, overanalyze, overcriticze, and over dramatize anything and everything you see because the product is nothing short of poetic. The biggest respect a writer gives to the works he or she likes is by thinking that it encompasses everything around it--including life itself. It's like that Celso title, "Ang Mundo Ay Isang Butil ng Luha." To relay anything else is mockery and downright disgust of the work one professes to love.

To anonymous,

"so tim burton adapted the musical for cinema. we get it." No, obviously you don't.

To chard,

Please, by all means, stay away from Atonement. It is L-A-M-E.

chard bolisay said...


Haha really? That's a surprise. Anyway, I won't be missing anything since I already had emotional ballistics with the book. If it turns out to be good, then it's a bonus. If not, well, why not write about it. Haha. Thanks for the reminder, John. :D

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Mars, John and Chard,

Mars, Ahhh, fame... who needs it? I certainly don't and rambles (pun intended), are so much hassles. Hopefully, no rambles come your way. Hehe.

John, thanks you very much for that beautifully written comment. I do try to at least make my ramblings readable, despite having little time to edit what I write. Thanks for the warning on Atonement, I had a feeling it would suck but I'll try to watch it anyway.

Anonymous said...

hi i'm anonymous.

i am a fan of oggs and his blog. that's why i feel entitled to say this review is rambling, when usually oggs is focused and concise.

i suspect oggs didn't see sweeney todd on stage (but that's okay, right?) but wanted to compare the film with it. i felt he was groping for things to say only to gush at the directorial "touches". i love openhearted no-holds-barred personal disclosures too, but this one is not.

i read my comment again, and it didn't feel out of place in a blog such as this, built for intelligent discussion; i wasn't desecrating the backyard. other fans should have more sense of humor. pinoys are so overprotective.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks for that anonymous,

Didn't see Sweeney Todd onstage, it never showed in Manila. I am familiar with the musicale, having been raised on that stuff, and later on, outgrowing it. To my defense though, I never intended to compare the stage production to the film which is why I limited myself to what I know and remember, the vocal prowesses of Lansbury and Hearn as compared to the rather weak and sketchy vocals of Bonham-Carter and Depp. Since it is a film, I focused more on why it worked despite its blatant imperfections, moving on to the visual touches, the juxtapositions, the symbolisms, and how I processed such things and me, being a subscriber to the auteur theory, pointed it as Burton's directorial touches, which I still believe them to be since Sweeney Todd isn't really much different from the rest of his ouvre. In any case, thanks for that explanation. Your first comment was too concise to mean anything and of course, I welcome criticism to my criticism but reserve the right to defend my views, thus the so-called overprotectiveness, which is quite natural and not endemic to our lovely archipelago.

So what did you think of the film anyway, and hopefully you can provide a pseudonym so the discourse can be much more personal.

Noel Vera said...

Oggs, if you're not offending someone then you're probably too much of a wuss. More power.

Oggs Cruz said...

I try to be diplomatic, hehe.