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Buckets Of Blood Pouring Out Of People’s Heads: Sweeney Todd December 27, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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I’m not quite sure how to review this particular film. On the one hand, I can talk about it purely as a film and discuss its sets, the staging, the costumes, the make-up, the lighting and filters, the casting, and so forth. I can also review the source material itself, the Broadway musical of Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim that the film sticks to fairly faithfully. There are things I like and dislike about both, really, and I’m not sure how they really add up.

The source material is an exercise in darkness, a revenge story wallowing in madness, lust and blood violence, with a dash of sick humor thrown in, but not enough to transform the piece into a satire. What we’re really left with is an elaborate exercise in unrelenting ugliness in the form of an opera. Some songs are sad, some amusing, but none of them are particularly memorable to me, neither by being pleasurable or haunting. The revenge is sought, acted upon and leads to the expected formulaic price – there are no surprises here.

So let’s move on to the film, which creates its own particular record of a single interpretation of this source material I find rather thin. Tim Burton creates an atmospheric nightmare Victorian landscape to hold his action – the narrow dark streets and seeming encroachment of the slightly surreal buildings adds to the feel of it all – and he puts enough white zombie makeup on his leads (Johnny Depp & Helena Bonham-Carter) to give us the constant presence of death every time we look at them onscreen. Depp’s hair and make-up seem to evoke the evil flipside of Edward Scissorhands at times, and though he’s mostly playing the entire film with the exact same affectations and emotions, he manages to define his albeit limited character well and sing his songs adequately. Alan Rickman makes a good villain (no surprise there) and Sascha Baron Cohen chews some scenery as some comic relief. Once you get past the bigger names, however, there are some excellent performances turned in from well-cast minor players, such as Timothy Spall as the Beadle and Ed Sanders as the boy Toby.

This may be the only movie I can think of in recent memory to properly utilize the blue-gray tinted filter throughout, making everything look like an endless twilight nightmare and perfectly setting up one of the best segments of the film where Mrs. Lovett sings of a day at the beach which is shot in bright picture postcard colors in contrast to the majority of the film and juxtaposes Depp as a sort-of monofocused monochrome zombie. I get tired of seeing that filter used as a lame attempt to add “realism” to battle footage or action sequences as if we’re supposedly watching some news broadcast – it looks flat and self-consciously arty. But here it works, and works well since the entire universe we’re watching is unreal and largely representational, whether of the soul-eating price of revenge or of some half-assed comment on the nature of industrial capitalism. But Burton can’t resist going over the top when trying to gross us out, whether it’s by the creepy crawlies scampering around Mrs. Lovett’s pies in her opening solo, or by repeatedly showing us the drawn-out blood flowing details in Todd’s slashing and slicing of the poor saps who come in for a shave. It’s one thing to see the Sam Peckinpaugh’s “Salad Days”-like fountain of stage blood (Geesh, there’s my second Python reference in this review…) gushing from the prosthetic throat of an extra before the rubber double is dumped down a chute to land on its head so we can see the neck broken as well – but do we have to see it a half a dozen friggin’ times in a row? Do we need to see characters literally covered with flowing blood by the end of this thing? I thought I was watching something by Herschell Gordon Lewis by the time it was over.

So I really don’t know what to think. I was interested in watching the film, I thought it was well-made and clever in parts, but I have no idea if I’d recommend it to anyone, and no idea if I’d tell them to stay away. Everyone I saw it with seemed to like it a lot, but it just left me cold. Perhaps it somehow drained all my blood as well.

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