"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd: Sumptuous and Tragic

As I was leaving the movie theater after watching Sweeney Todd, my mind was swirling with those silly, cliche comments often seen accompanying ads for critically acclaimed movies: "Sweeney Todd is . . . a visual masterpiece!" "Another Burton beauty!" "A tale of blood and woe — woah!" I'll spare you the rest. The bottom line is that I was impressed. And nauseated. But mostly impressed.

The Stephen Sondheim musical and Tim Burton are a match made in heaven. Burton's dark, sinister-looking scenery and the bloody, musical horrorfest of a story gel together seamlessly to create something so lushly gory — but heartfelt — you may need to dry heave a little bit.
The story follows Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a young man wrongfully imprisoned because the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) was obsessed with Barker's wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and wanted her for himself.

Years later when Barker returns to London, he renames himself Sweeney Todd and opens up a barber shop above Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) meat pie shop, hoping to exact revenge on the judge by luring him in for a shave and then slitting his throat. For his part, Judge Turpin has been keeping Todd's daughter Joanna as his ward. Yet when a young friend of Todd's falls in love with Joanna by spotting her at her window, he determines to break her free from the Judge's grasp. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd figure out a gruesome way to boost her meat pie sales. Those are basic plot points, but there's much more to say about Sweeney Todd.

Burton does some gorgeous tricks with light, color and reflection. Cracked mirrors and the reflections glinting off of Sweeney Todd's shaving blades are heavily used to distort or duplicate images, and to not-so-subtly symbolize Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd's fractured identity and his tortured soul. Burton's London is swathed in shadows and muted by a dark gray sky. His color palette consists of shades of gray with tinges of gold, blue and raspberry. The jarring exception, of course, is the brilliantly red blood that gushes freely, sometimes spurting onto the camera lens itself, causing the audience to instinctively jump back. The one time he interrupts this dismal color scheme is when depicting Mrs. Lovett's wistful dream of marrying "Mr. T" and spending the rest of her days "by the sea." The quintessentially Burtonesque costumes and candy-bright colors in this sequence are outrageous and delightful enough to garner giggles of surprise.

Johnny Depp is magnificent, as always, and the rest of the actors are wonderfully cast. Alan Rickman is genuinely disturbing as the perverted old judge. His right-hand man played by Timothy Spall is convincingly sick and twisted. Sacha Baron Cohen is funny as the competing barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli, which is to be expected, but the surprise is that his performance is also quite chilling. My favorite aspect of this film, however, is the classic Depp-Bonham Carter combination. They're simply the most perfect duo, as always — each strange and broken-down in their own way, yet both powerful in their own way, too.

This movie has been hyped to the gills, and it's hard to live up to such high expectations. Having said all this great stuff about the movie, the fact remains that it is still a musical, and people who think musicals are silly will most assuredly still think this movie is silly — Johnny Depp or no Johnny Depp. The movie is also not for the squeamish, as there is more blood — and, well, ground up human meat — than a B-grade slasher flick. I have an average-strength stomach and I felt the gag reflex kick in more than once. If you like this sort of thing, however, it's all worth it.

Go see Sweeney Todd. Just eat a light meal beforehand.

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