Monday, May 25, 2009


Tim Burton: Hollywood's undisputed champion of gothic horror.

Sweeney Todd: a psycho barber and famous purveyor of questionable meat pies.

Hmmmm... what took you so long?

It was screamingly obvious what a gorgeous team they would make. Rarely have we seen a film director so perfectly matched to a musical. And the black magic begins when Johnny Depp's white-faced Sweeney steals up the Thames at the dead of night. As the boat slips under a spooky London Bridge it becomes quite clear that Burton was put on earth to shoot this glorious melodrama.

The film unfolds like the Grimmest of fairy tales. Depp's bitter Sweeney returns to London after 15 years of hurt. His painful story emerges in hollow songs with haunting off-key melodies. He wears his grievances like armour. His plan to murder the men who condemned him to a penal colony in order to rape his wife hinges around the dismal apartment above Mrs Lovett's (Helena Bonham-Carter) ailing pie shop. The atmosphere is vintage Hammer Studios. The gleaming monochrome shots of cobbled streets are drained of color. Effectively overwrought and excellent, Sweeney Todd is a movie of bombastic, impossible camera moves and rhapsodic yuckiness. Burton can't resist filling the screen with scuttling vermin or surges of splatterific violence.

Depp's Sweeney is a fiery-eyed, razor-brandishing cadaver with a mad Pagliacci glare. Bonham Carter is comparably corpse-like -- a matched composition in bird-nest hairdo, death-pallor complexion, and heavily shadowed eyes. The musical chemistry between Depp and Helena Bonham Carter's genial cockney pie shop mistress is terrific. Sondheim approved the casting, and, surprisingly, Depp has a pleasing, if untrained, tenor. Alongside Bonham Carter's sweetly tentative voice, the numbers are inventively staged. Especially the cannibal waltz "A Little Priest" and the grotesquely wistful "By the Sea". Lovett's unreciprocated passion for Sweeney is the heart of the film and her bright idea of stuffing Sweeney's clients into meat pies seems almost perfectly sensible under the circumstances.

The film's pace is a surprise. Burton has pruned Sondheim's arias to fit the tempo of a real thriller -- brilliant editing -- and the villains are far less stocky. Yes, the ghoulishly attractive couple is supported by a suitable gang of gargoyles; Sacha Baron Cohen delivers a priceless cameo as a jealous unisex rival with plans to blackmail Sweeney. Alan Rickman is a sinister pleasure as Judge Turpin. And Timothy Spall is equally effective as his ultra-violent slithery enforcer, Beadle Bamford.

Burton has never been one to spare the gore. The sound of skulls cracking open when Sweeney tosses his victims head first into the basement is not for the faint-of-heart. The director's knack of finding comedy in these ghastly scenes is tested to the limit. And the haunting final shot of the film, the details of which we must keep to ourselves so not to spoil the plot, is a masterful shot, painterly in its composition of framing, detail, and color.

There is much that can be said about Sweeney Todd, but for now we must insist that you stop reading about it, and experience the film for yourself. A mad serial killer, a helpful, adoring woman, a vile judge, and a barber's chair - all elements that combine to form much more than this simple review can encapsulate. It is masterful cinema, art and entertainment, vision and sound combined for a truly riveting experience.

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