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.