Friday, January 11, 2008

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET - bizarre directorial decisions weaken a visually stunning film

An odd experience on Friday night - finally getting to see one of my cinema-heroes, Tim Burton, do a Q&A at a point where I was starting to lose faith in him. I was coming to terms with the fact that SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET had left me underwhelmed. I was wondering if Burton, like Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith, was joining the league of directors delivering diminishing returns. When Tim Burton first came to our attention he was doing something radically different. He was creating fables, even if they were set in contemporary America. He was creating slushy romances set against a bitter, twisted and hateful world. And when he took teen heart-throb Johnny Depp and mutiltated his face in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, he was radically altering our perception of the actor.

The years have passed by and we have seen Burton express his fascination with dark comedy, thwarted love and expressionistic horror films in myriad form. We've seen stop-motion animation, period horror stories and re-made children's novels. Now, with SWEENEY TODD, we get a musical. But in every case, the movies are very direct, unfiltered expressions of Burton's world. The heroines will have long blonde hair set in waves and almost white-blonde eye-brows. No matter which period the source material was set in, you are most likely going to see women in corsets and men in stocks and frock coats. Johnny Depp, the ominpresent hero, will have slightly crazy wavy hair. The photography will feature chiaroscuro lighting and an expressionistic use of colour, where it appears. Our thwarted lovers will finally be united but not after a couple of hours toiling against the world's mis-deeds. The humour will be dark - the orchestral score from Danny Elfman - rich and dominant. All these factors are distinctly Burton. I don't think he can make a movie any other way and be faithful to his interests and particular talent. But I have to say that I am becoming, well, a little bored by it.

SWEENEY TODD is a case in point. Johnny Depp looks like an older version of Ichabod Crane - the costume is the same - the only change a white stripe in his hair and rouge-noir under his eyes. Jayne Wisener, who plays Todd's grown-up daughter Johanna (badly, I mght add), is a dead ringer for Katrina Van Tassel. All the other characters and sets are dressed in an indistinct Burton-land - a sort of vague Victorian stock-horror look. The result is that the film doesn't feel new and interesting, even though the costume and production design is evidently brilliant. Another side-effect of Burton's choices is that the movie doesn't feel as though it's set in London. Sure, you see St Paul's on the sky-line now and again, but there is no respect for the topography of the area or the peculiarity of Victorian London. Fleet Street, and Mrs Lovett's pie-shop are less claustrophobic and squalid than one might imagine. All in all, the London of SWEENEY TODD looks like a more built up version of SLEEPY HOLLOW.

So the movie feels familiar. That wouldn't be so much of a problem if the framing and editing weren't also pretty weak. Too often, Burton and DP Dariusz Wolski created a beautiful tableau only to have the director/editor (Burton regular Chris Lebenzon) snap away in a jarring movement that destroys the mood. The final scene is a classic example of this. I also have problems with Burton's choices as a writer too. I'm all in favour of a slash-and-burn policy with regard to long musicals. I love that he cut out the Ballad of Sweeney Todd, which would have been an annoyingly didactic overture. But by refocusing the musical on Todd and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Lovett, Burton leaves his love story high and dry. For much of the film, I'd been bored to tears by the insipid Anthony (inspid performance too by Jamie Campbell Bower) blathering on about his Johanna, but all the same we were building toward an exciting confrontation. Johanna is hidden in a box in Todd's barber shop.

(SPOILERS till the next paragraph.) She discovers that Todd is a serial murderer and that he has just killed her guardian. She discovers that Todd is actually her father, Benjamin Baker, and that Barker was shipped off to Australia by a corrupt judge who then had his wicked way with her mother. Furthermore, she then discovers that her mother was alive until Todd just killed her! And now Todd is remorseful until he too has his throat slit. So, poor Johanna has just gone through an enormous revelation while sitting in the box in Todd's barber shop. Moreover, she has just run away to be with her Anthony. As boring as I found this character, and as annoying as I found the actress portraying her, it would have been nice to get her out of the box and give her some closure!

So much for the disappointments: what of the good? Well, despite all this grumbling, I did actually enjoy SWEENEY TODD for four simple reasons: first, Stephen Sondheim's score is brilliant and the lyrics very funny and very dark; second, Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant as the demented lover of an acknowledged murderer who bakes the corpses into pies; third, Johnny Depp is brilliant as Sweeney Todd, acting through his expressions rather than through words - his decent singing voice compensating for a dodgy British accent; fourth, Sacha Baron Cohen's scene-stealing performance as Italian barber Pirelli. (And take note, Depp fans, if you want to see a London accent done properly, the unmasked Pirelli is your benchmark.)

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET opened in the US in December 2007. It opens in South Korea on January 17th; Japan on January 19th; France, Australia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Iceland, New Zealand, Turkey, the UK and Venezuala on January 24th; Hong Kong, Lebanon and Portugal on January 31st. It opens in Denmark, Greece, Singapore, Slovakia, Brazil, Egypt, Argentina, Estonia, Finland, Spain, Germany, Swizterland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Belgium in February. It opens in Russia on March 6th.

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