Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sweeney Todd

Last night I gave in to a gathering sense of film history in progress, and saw the Tim Burton film, based on Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It's a violent, bitter, twisted, macabre, gruesome, angry, and coldly evil film with terrific music and brilliant performances, reuniting Willy Wonka, Charlie Bucket's mother, and the director of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The above actors play, respectively, an embittered barber turned homicidal maniac and his enabling landlady, who serves his victims to the public as meat pies. The bloodbath is triggered by Professor Snape and Wormtail, or rather a crooked judge and brutal beadle played by the same actors.

What keeps the demon barber's revenge from becoming nothing more than a diabolical justification for mass murder is the bittersweet tragedy furnished by a handful of peripheral characters who complicate the business, most notably Borat in the character of a cockney blackmailer disguised as an Italian barber.

There is also a couple of beautiful young lovers whose chances of true happiness are blighted in an interesting reversal of romantic convention; a mad beggar-woman who somehow seems to be the only person who perceives what is going on; and a sweet-faced, good-hearted waif whose likely future may provide a disturbing topic for your thoughts during the long, wakeful night after you see this movie.

All these characters, trailing individual plot threads behind them, come together in a climax of farce-like complexity, resulting in a grisly tangle from which few of them will walk away. It is truly disturbing to behold, but the most disturbing part is how you sympathize with nearly all of them on a certain level. I guess that's how tragedy is supposed to be done: when truly tragic characters are about to perish, you suddenly pity them as you realize that their fate was inevitable.

And how about the look of the movie? It does a great deal to convince you of Sweeney Todd's thesis that 19th-century London is a "hole in the world like a deep, dark pit." Besides the barber shop / abbatoir, the film takes you to a sinister bakehouse, a filthy sewer, an insane asylum, and a pie shop crawling with cockroaches. To look at the costumes, I believe the target the filmmakers aimed for (and hit) was "Charles Dickens on a bad acid trip." Which reminds me of one more thing - the spiky-haired waif I previously mentioned would have done well in the role of Jerry Cruncher's chip-a-block son.

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