Saturday, February 26, 2011

Women in Horror: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Benjamin Barker and his beautiful wife Lucy have a daughter named Joanna and a wonderful life together. Judge Turpin is enticed by Lucy and falsely imprisons Barker to allow him to fully persue her. Benjamin returns after fifteen years only to find that his entire life is gone. His wife is dead and his daughter is in the clutches of the very man who imprisoned him. Revenge is the only thing on his mind after Mrs. Lovett, the owner of the place he used to live, filled him in on all the details of the events that transpired after he was gone. He assumes an new identity as Sweeney Todd and opens up a barber shop to lie in wait for the judge. In the meantime, before the Judge shows up, he practices on unsuspecting customers while Mrs. Lovett makes the most delicious meat pies with a very special ingredient...

The first experience I ever had with Sweeney Todd was watching the version with Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and George Hern as Sweeney Todd. I was incredibly bored and shocked at how such a disturbing, interesting story could be turned into such a bore. As disappointing as this one was, I was looking forward to Tim Burton's new endeavor because he's one of my favorite directors of all time. I'm so happy that he gave the musical new life on the screen with his collaboration with the great Stephen Sondheim.

The music is wonderful throughout the film. I've heard a lot of people say there aren't any memorable songs, but I think this is more due to the fact that it sounds much more modern, syncopated, and dissonant than the typical Broadway musical. The songs have a great range from the dark and stormy Epiphany to the delightfully comical A Little Priest to the beautiful, melancholy Green Finch and Linnet Bird. My favorite song is My Friends because of the wonderful interweaving of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett's voices. It's deceptively quiet and understated, but really reveals the truth in their relationship: Todd is completely consumed by his need for revenge and Mrs. Lovett, although forgotten by Todd, simply wants to be loved by him. I was relieved that Sondheim didn't choose to have operatic voices featured in the film because I think that's part of why I didn't like the previous rendition. I both love Johnny Depp's rough, rock influenced rendition and Helena Bonham Carter's wispy, fragile voice. They are by no means professional singers, but they embody their characters so well that their voices just fit. I really couldn't see anyone else as these characters. The two best singers in the film are easily young Ed Sanders as Toby and Jayne Wisener as Johanna. These two young people blew me away with their singing voices and I hope to see more from them.

The visuals of the film are striking, portraying the gritty and dark underbelly of London. The color scheme is mostly in black and white with the only real color being the blood that spills in copious amounts across the screen. The only really vibrant, saturated colors come from the songBy the Sea, which shows Mrs. Lovett's dream of a life with Todd and Toby as her family. The absence of color in the real world shows that there is really no hope for anyone in this story. The makeup used on the main characters is reminiscent of silent films and classic horror movies. It both sets them apart from the other characters and enhances the dark ambiance that encompasses the film. One of the things I most enjoy about the film is the cinematography during songs. This is no boring musical with one angle for an entire song. The visuals are just as striking as the music with the changes in camera angle, playing with reflective and transparent surfaces, and the use of wide shots as well as close-ups. This made the film dynamic and as interesting to watch as it is to listen to.

The two most compelling characters in the film are both women: Mrs. Lovett and Johanna. Mrs. Lovett is much more than a conniving woman that wants to use Todd to her own ends. Although it would be easy to simply portray her as an evil villain that cooks people into meat pies, she's really so much more than that. Everything that she does in the film is really fueled by love. She loves Sweeney Todd so much that she is willing to help him kill people so that he will be with her. Her efforts throughout the film are to protect and manipulate Todd to stay with her as long as possible. Her nurturing side is definitely featured in the film, shown through her taking Toby under her wing and treating him like a son. She also expresses sympathy for Johanna who never really had a mother or a loving family to take care of her. This different side of her really endeared her to me and made hopeful that she would get the family she wanted even though she wasn't a completely good person.

Johanna is an interesting character. Because she has been isolated and ogled by Judge Turpin her whole life, one would assume that she would be naive and probably warped in some way. This isn't true at all. She is melancholy obviously because her guardian is abusive, but she sees the world in a practical way. Anthony has seen locations all over the world as a sailor, but he remains convinced that they will run away and live happily ever after together. Johanna knows that all their problems won't be solved and reveals herself to be more realistic than him. Her strength and resilience are truly impressive. It was easy to portray her as a wilting flower of a girl who was weak and bland. Jayne Wisener takes a small role and makes it truly memorable with her quiet confidence and beautiful singing voice.

Sweeney Todd is one of the best musicals made in recent years. I love how Tim Burton combined silent movie horror with the more bloody, gory horror of the present. I am still impressed with all of the acting, no matter how small the role. It is a film I will be watching again and again for many years to come.

My rating: 10/10 fishmuffins


Mrs. DeRaps said...

Love this story and the Tim Burton version. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are my favorites. Genius.

Misty said...

I love My Friends for that reason, too! Man, I love Helena Bonham Carter. She is perfection.