Wednesday, October 30, 2013

54. Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Code-name: Joanna

Type: Musical, Drama, Horror
Director: Tim Burton
Music (and lyrics): Stephen Sondheim

Notable Awards & Nominations:
OSCAR- Best Art Direction
nomination- OSCAR- Best Actor- Johnny Depp
nomination- OSCAR- Best Costume- Colleen Atwood
Golden Globe- Best Actor (Comedy/Musical)- Johnny Depp
Golden Globe- Best Picture (Comedy/Musical)
nomination- Best Actress (Comedy/Musical)- Helena Bonham Carter
nomination- Best Director- Tim Burton
nomination- Grammy- Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture

Sweeny Todd- Johnny Depp
Mrs. Lovett- Helena Bonham Carter
Anthony- Jamie Campbell Bower
Joanna- Jayne Wisener
Toby- Edward Sanders
Judge Turpin- Alan Rickman
Beadle -Timothy Spall
Mr. Pirelli- Sacha Baron Cohen
Crazy Begger Woman- Laura Michelle Kelly


Opening Remarks

Around this time last year, I was watching the movie (as I generally do around Halloween) and thought that I could NOT do this list without including it.

I don't know exactly when or how I was introduced to the killer combination of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. But this is probably my favorite collaboration.
The first time I saw it, it was during my college's weekly movie night. Every Thursday, they'd play movies just weeks away from coming out on DVD.

Everything about it blew me away.
First and foremost, I didn't know Johnny Depp could sing. Certainly not like THAT. I'm a bit of a sucker for actors who can also sing.
Second of all, I really hate horror movies. Blood, gore and all that. The story of "Sweeny Todd" and the overall look of Tim Burton's directing made that accessible to me. It was handled in such a way that I respected it. Whatever gross factor there was, it made sense in the context of the story.

I haven't seen any other version of this musical (and I'm not counting that episode of "The Office" where Andy was playing the role of Anthony :-P) and I'm not sure if I want to. Why shop around when I am so pleased with one specific interpretation? Especially when it comes to the title role.

Johnny Depp was great as Sweeny Todd because, while the man was teetering on the brink of madness, he made the character sympathetic and more of an anti-hero than a villain.
In my view (as well as Tim Burton's), Benjamin Barker was a good person that bad things have happened to and by going to the dark side, adopting the persona of "Sweeny Todd", he wants to exact revenge on humanity.
Two people in particular, though, are his key motivation.

The Story

Some spoilers a head...

The backstory is told in the opening number "There's no place like London", but this is the abridged version:

There was a barber [Benjamin Barker] and his wife [Lucy]. And she was beautiful.
There was another man [Judge Turpin] who saw that she was beautiful. A pious vulture of the law who... removed the barber from his plate.

In a way (I made this connection the first time I saw it and am just remembering now), this is another take on "The Count of Monte Cristo". A man in power had a man falsely imprisoned so he could steal away his lover.

15 years later, Sweeny Todd returns to London to pick up the pieces from the life that had been ripped away from him.
He goes to Mrs. Lovett's pie shop and after recognizing him, tells him what happened.

After failing to woo Lucy, the Judge invited her to a masquerade party where he raped her.
She poisoned herself with arsenic and the Judge took her (and Barker's) daughter Joanna, raising her as his ward.

Sweeny sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett's on Fleet Street. When they're in town, she "introduces" him to Pirelli, "king of barbers, barber of kings"... he's on grandstand with his assistant, Toby, promoting his miracle hair growth elixir.
Sweeny debunks him as a fraud, the elixir is nothing more of a concoction of piss & ink. Spotting the Beadle (who's under employment of the Judge) in the crowd, he stages a contest for which barber can do the quickest, smoothest shave.

Sweeny wins by a landslide. (But to be fair, if Pirelli didn't go into a long operatic solo in the middle of his song, he probably could have won).
Obviously impressed, the Beadle says he'll be by Fleet Street before the week is out.

There's also a subplot involving young sailor Anthony and Joanna, whom he falls madly in love with upon seeing her (and hearing her singing) through her bedroom window.
The judge, upon noticing him (Anthony singing about "Joanna" didn't exactly help matters), gives him explicit warning to stay away.... the "or else" goes without saying.

A number of circumstances come together and blow up in Sweeny Todd's face. In response, he and Mrs. Lovett get a devilish idea.
When a person (preferably, someone with no one to miss him) comes to him for a shave, Sweeny slits their throats and they end up as meat in Mrs. Lovett's pies.

The first victim is Mr. Pirelli, who recognized Sweeny Todd from "the old days" when he apprenticed at his shop and threatened to blackmail him.
This also results in Mrs. Lovett adopting Toby, further leading her to believe the three of them can live together as a family one day.

Also not to be taken for granted is a crazy old woman we see throughout the show.

Without giving too much away, let's just say the body count is substantial... though not to the extreme brought by Quentin Tarantino... and nearly all of the storylines find resolution.

The Highlights

Most of the highlights, I could easily list as song titles.

I was smitten with Jamie Campbell Bower (as well as his tenor voice... I'm a sucker for a good tenor) right away. Within the first bar, I knew "Joanna" would be my favorite track. At least the performance of it :-P
For the overall, I love "My Friends." Sweeny Todd rejoices at being reunited with his razors, which Mrs. Lovett had kept for him since his arrest. Johnny Depp said it was the first song he sang publicly... again, wow... if he made more of a habit of it, he would give RDJ a run for his money.

Say what you will about Helena Bonham Carter and how Tim Burton always seems to cast her (his actual wife) in his movies... personally, I find it fascinating that their characters always seem to be in the same situation (her character being in love with him and he never returns those feelings)... she really worked hard to make this role her own. Maybe not the strongest voice on set, but then again, it is a difficult part to play. She deserves a lot of credit.

Jayne Wisener (Joanna) and Ed Sanders (Toby) are newcomers. Jayne was in a production of "West Side Story" run by Musical Theater 4 Youth (which is a stepping stone for aspiring young performers) when she was spotted by a casting director.
Joanna has only one song, "Green Finch and Linnet Bird." My experience in high school concert choir tells me that that role demands the voice of a high soprano. (The correct term might be mezzo-soprano, but I'm not positive).

It's pretty cool that several of the cast members, I knew as characters from the "Harry Potter" series.
Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) is truly the villain here... one I find extremely repulsive. Never mind the fact he's a corrupt politician who thinks he's entitled to everything... the fact he wants to marry Joanna so that no other men will lay eyes on her, when she's only 15... EWWWWWW!!!
True to form, Wormtail (Timothy Spall) plays the toady of the villain, though with much less screen time.

With the exception of Charlie's mum in "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory," Mrs. Lovett is one of the most normal characters Helena Bonham Carter has played. Quite a relief, considering how sadistic (sometimes even terrifying in a very unhinged way) Bellatrix Lestrange is.

This movie, most likely, is also the reason why she and Sacha Baron Cohen were cast alongside each other in "Les Miz".
I'd never seen, nor do I intend to see, "Borat," "Bruno" or any of Cohen's strange movies... I think the dude's too much of a weirdo. But you gotta give him props, he can sing pretty well.

One thing I particularly enjoy about it is when the sense of humor comes into play.

  • Sweeny Todd complaining about the Beadle not coming by. "Before the week is out, that's what he said"... Mrs. Lovett responds "who said the week is out? it's only Tuesday"
  • After Sweeny's exclamation in the song "Epiphany" where he's on his knees "I'm alive at last and I'm full of JOY!!!"... Mrs. Lovett disrupts the mood, saying "that's all very well, but what about him [referring to Mr. Pirelli's corpse]?"
  • The entire number "By the Sea" is just laughable on Johnny Depp's facial expressions alone... plus the fact the scenes shown here are so bright and colorful, it just contradicts the look of the rest of the movie.
The art direction and Colleen Atwood's costuming are definitely worthy of note. You really do feel like you're in Victorian England, just by the way everything looks. The nerd in me has no choice but to rejoice 8-)

Overall, the only drawback this movie has is that it gets a little slow in the third act. After thinking about it for a bit, the same can be said about a lot of other movies.
But it all pays off rather well.

Actually, it felt like a well-played horror movie thriller... the first time I saw it, it felt like the greatest plot twist since "The Sixth Sense".
It is tragic and, for me, always a bit of a tearjerker. Both because it's a sad ending and also because I hated for the movie to end.

One last thing...

It's not often I take issue with the ending of a movie.... okay that's a total lie... it's happening more frequently since 2011.
The body count I could live with... but I didn't like the fact they never gave resolution to Anthony and Joanna's storyline. As planned previously, he leaves her at Sweeny's barber shop while he runs to get a getaway carriage for them. She witnesses one of his murders and almost ends up a victim until he's called away by other matters.
We're lead to assume that she and Anthony will run away together and live happily ever after... I just wish they'd thought to SHOW that in the movie :(

Jamie Campbell Bower, interestingly, goes on to assay roles in the "Harry Potter" (young Grindelwald) and "Twilight" (Caius of The Volturi) franchises... and, assuming they'll make any sequels, "The Mortal Instruments" (Jace Wayland).
It was pretty cool watching this the other day, seeing him and thinking about how great it'll be to see him play Jace... after reading the first three "Mortal Instruments" books.

Edit: They didn't do any sequels of the movie and recast it entirely for a new TV series. They took a lot of liberties, but I still enjoy it a lot. I just wish Jace still had a British accent because that's how it read to me in the books. I read him having an accent and Alec and Isabelle being American English. Damn them for wanting to be consistent just because they grew up together

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