Thursday, April 10, 2008

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

Sweeney Todd is easily one of the most famous characters to come out of England. Indeed, he is perhaps the earliest fictional serial killer to achieve any sort of fame. He made his first appearance n the serial The String of Pearls, published in The People's Periodical and Family Library, issues 7 (November 21 1846) to 24 (March 20, 1847). The String of Pearls would meet with incredible success. The serial was not even completed when the first dramatic adaptation appeared, written by George Dibden Pitt for the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton in 1947. Tales of the demon barber of Fleet Street would become popular fare in pubs across England. He would appear again and again throughout the latter part of the Nineteenth century and into the Twentieth, in print, on stage, on film, and even in music hall ballads. It would have a lasting influence on British literature, influencing future detective stories and a novel called Dracula. In many ways he became the stuff of legend.

That is not to say that the portrayal of Sweeney Todd would not vary over the years. In his earliest appearances, beginning with The String of Pearls. Todd's motivation was simply to become very, very rich. It was in 1973, in his play Sweeney Todd, that playwright Christopher Bond would give Sweeney the motive for which he is best known now--revenge. In 1979 Stephen Sondheim would adapt Bond's play into the highly successful musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It is Sondheim's musical which director Tim Burton adapted for the big screen.

Fans of the musical will naturally notice some differences between the original musical and its screen adaptation. The musical clocks in at nearly three hours, while the movie is only around two hours. Several songs were cut and others would lose verses. But overall, the movie Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is fairly loyal to the musical. The central plot is still there, in which Todd seeks revenge for iniquities committed against him, and every character from the musical can be found in the film. This is definitely for the best. Film being a different medium than the stage, the plot should not be slowed down for songs which may be peripheral to the central plot thread. Similarly, in a musical such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the characters are ultimately more important than the songs. Both the film and the musical are character driven works, in which each character is driven by his or her own, often very powerful, motives and desires.

As to the overall quality of the film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, it is a bloody good film, emphasis on the word bloody. Both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are adequate as singers, but they make up for any lack in the singing department with stellar performances. Indeed, Depp's performance brings to mind the horror actors of old, particularly Boris Karloff. His Todd is wonderfully quiet and often very, very still--the effect of which can be unsettling at times. As Mrs. Lovett, Carter realistically potrays a lonely widow one can believe would fall in love with a revenge driven madman. Kudos must also go to Alan Rickman, the judge and villain of the piece who puts the whole plot into action when he falsely imprisons Todd. Rickman's Judge Turpin is wonderfully intimidating and even a bit creepy.

Of course, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Art Direction. And the very look of the film does lend it much of its appeal, and not simply because of the movie's fantastic production design. From the costumes to Dariusz Wolski's cinematography, the movie creates a very dark, very rich atmosphere that is in many ways reminiscent of the Hammer movies of old.

While speaking of the overall look and feel of the movie, I suppose I should mention the violence of the movie, of which much had been said and written. Indeed, the MPAA's rating carries with a warning about "Bloody graphic violence." And there is a good deal of blood in the movie, as might be expected of a film in which a murderous barber slashes his victim's throats with his razors. In fact, blood not only flows in this movie, it spews. That having been said, I think Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is actually less graphic than many horror movies (particularly the many torture chic films). While there is a lot of blood, there are no guts in sight. At any rate, I must warn viewers, if you have weak stomachs, this movie is not for you.

As someone who loved the original Stephen Sondheim musical and has followed Sweeney Todd in his various incarnations, I must say that Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the best interpretations of the demon barber. More than that, it is a genuinely good film with fantastic performances, some great songs, a fantastic look and feel, and, as might be expected, a lot of blood...


d. chedwick bryant said...

I'm glad to hear someone who is really familiar with the material likes it--I have never seen the play. I like Rickman Depp and Carter, but I wasn't sure, but now it's on my list.

d. chedwick bryant said...

ps hope Max is feeling better