Tim Burton’s visual stylings are sometimes almost too handsome for the movies he directs. He doesn’t like a dirty visual look, though the settings and the worlds the characters inhabit are many times surrounded by filth. There’s an edgy graphic novel quality he lends to the stories he tells as every shot is placed neatly into a box on a page. His sets are like doll houses and his actors sometimes look like mischievous dolls. This aesthetic brand has created a following of indulgent misfits. People so drawn to the misfits in Burton’s films that they yearn to have scissors for hands themselves (not realizing that it’s a metaphor.) A lot of reviewers have thrown the word goth around, but it’s not quite goth – it’s not as one note as goth. It’s more fanciful, a world of twisted child like imaginings. Many times though Burton has relied on this visual quality to tell his story when what he may have needed was a stronger story in the first place. I’m a fan of many of his films ranging all the way back to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but for me the quality of his movies in recent years has become flimsy. Mars Attacks, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride were miscalculations I felt, some worse than others. Usually with perhaps strong beginnings that didn’t know where to go once the second act kicked into gear, or didn’t know what they wanted to be. I’m pleased to say that Burton has found the proper dose of inspiration and cohesiveness with his new film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and he’s created something on par with his Sleepy Hallows and Ed Woods of the past. Since the movie is pretty much lifted straight from the musical I don’t think I’ll need to worry about misinterpreting the story. It’s a story of revenge. A young barber with a wife and child is sent to prison under false charges by a morally hideous judge only to return and find out his wife is dead and the judge has his now 16 year old daughter held captive. It’s that revenge that drives him to the edge of insanity and beyond the realm of proper reason. Of course the nice little side story of human meat pies remains intact.
Johnny Depp, as the barber Sweeney Todd, plays another character with a Brit accent (seems like he’s done a lot of that since Sleepy Hollow). He seems at times to play the character so introverted and turned in on himself, so very dead to the world around him that he lets the look and feel of the film around him do his performing. It’s a technique that pays off, for when he does open up, and expresses even the smallest of emotional reactions, your attention is drawn full force to him. It’s an incredibly controlled and insightful meditation on this man. Even when there’s a crazed fire in his eyes, his mind is focused. Even when he reacts compulsively his attention remains with pin point precision on his goal at hand. That is of course his fatal and tragic flaw. It consumes him – destroying reason and empathy. But there are worse people in the world and one of those people is brought to disturbing life by Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin. If he wasn’t so despicable it would be difficult to root for Todd’s journey, so we do. Any person would want revenge taken upon such a filthy human being.
But Todd can’t do it alone, he also has Mrs. Lovett, played of course by Helena Bonham Carter. Helena plays Lovett as a woman who yearns for more and isn’t afraid to do what she has to to get there. It would have been easy for her to just be morbid and cackling, but she allows Lovett to be the compassionate center that the film needs. She’s the cool spot at the center of hell even when she’s grinding meat.
But Sondheim had more on his mind when he wrote this musical than just revenge. He shows the consequences of said revenge and everyone ends up pretty much getting what they deserve, no matter how much more despicable the people around them were. With such a dark story Burton takes every chance he gets to instill some wonderfully conceived dark humor, none of which seems like humor for the sake of lightening the mood, but humor that flows naturally from the characters and situations. It’s a wonderful balancing act of tonalities that Burton dances around. Of course the other side of the coin is that Burton doesn’t shy away from showing us the violent ways in which Todd dispatches his clientèle (not all of them however, the one he lets live shows a break from his single mindedness and what could bring him back.) With his blades in hand he spills gallons of blood. Don’t be alarmed or let that turn you away from seeing the film. The blood has that gooey bright red look that many seventies movies had; the kind of blood that looks more like maple syrup than real blood. And when it sprays it becomes more of an ethereal kind of violence, more comic book gleeful than dark morbid murder. More Itchy and Scratchy than Aliens, more eeew gross than unnecessary. Especially when gravity pulls those bodies from the attic room to the basement – they hit the floor with a thud that startles you.
Those aren’t the moments that made me cringe though. It’s merely the sight of the shiny, sharp razor that makes your hair stand on end. As it draws near – will it cut, or won’t it? Burton has a lot of fun with this. That razor becomes more than a tool, it’s a character taking on a life of it’s own, pushing Sweeney to react without thinking. Allowing him to become desensitized to the act of killing until he’s hardly a person at all.
This is a musical yes but unlike most musicals Burton finds moments in which he allows for his actors to play it small, instead of for the back row, which completely ruined the film version of The Producers musical. He knows to trust that his actors can say a lot with very little, and that very little will play brilliantly on a screen the size of my apartment building. He shows restraint when he needs to and it’s a smart choice.
I shall become petty now…Burton has taken a liking to opening credit sequences that employ rubbery computer generated effects. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we follow a candy bar as it’s being made and as the gold ticket is inserted into the packaging. Now in Sweeney Todd the computer takes us through all of the places we’ll see later in the film. It felt a little more natural here as with a musical there’s a prelude where the orchestra will play highlights of the music to come. But those graphics still look flimsy and I wonder at their importance to the telling of the story. Another moment toward the beginning of the film employed “eh” computer technology to send us whizzing through the streets of London. It was a moment that seemed separate from the rest of the film and didn’t really jive with the energy that the story created otherwise. A few missed notes in an otherwise incredibly enjoyable and cleverly conceived song.
I want to return for a moment to those Burton followers. Now I’m not calling out all of them, but there are a certain few of you who this pertains to – you know who you are. Find your own voice. I beg you. I’ve seen your art work littered across myspace. I’ve seen your dolls covered in black and white striped clothing. It’s okay to be influenced by something, or to pay homage to something, but if all of your art work is a blatant rip off of the designs created by Burton, then you’re not an artist, but a plagiarist. Now think about what I’ve said and go enjoy Sweeney Todd.