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|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Saturday, 01 March 2008 19:00|
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the latest in a string of critically acclaimed dark and funny movies from filmmaker Tim Burton.
I entered the cinema to see the film knowing nothing of the storyline before hand. I had correctly guessed that the subtitle “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” hinted at some gory and gruesome subject matter, but, other than this preliminary notion, I was very much in the dark. Then, in the blackness of the movie theatre, I saw the light.
It was an odd little viewing experience, to be sure, but nestled within the oddness, I awoke to the fact that this film was something special. Sweeney Todd challenged my views about what to expect from a film, and how a good story should be told. I found myself torn between laughing at the ludicrous and wonderful songs (“The Worst Pies in London”, performed by the captivating Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, was superb), and being deeply moved by Johnny Depp’s somber portrayal of a disturbed barber/murderer (so often the two overlap). The seamless weaving of the film’s dark themes (mental illness, madness, and terror pervade the narrative) with the light songs and love story captivated my attention and produced a film of delightful contrasts; it was odd, but wonderfully so.
Perhaps this oddness is the real allure of Burton’s films. Over the last decade and a half his films have continually challenged preconceived notions of what a Hollywood studio film looks like. Undoubtedly, Burton’s loyal fans have developed preconceived notions of the aesthetics they expect from his work, but the films as a whole continue to actively challenge mainstream Hollywood standards. The darkness that saturates every scene of Sweeny Todd, and seems to inhabit the characters themselves, is an artistic achievement on the part of Burton and his skilled team. All of the films creative contributors, from make-up artists to costume designers to the actors themselves, deserve credit for creating the film’s dark and rich atmosphere, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was fully justified in awarding Todd with an Academy Award for best Art Direction.
Christopher Bond wrote the original Todd play, which was then adapted by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim into the Broadway musical from which Burton’s film is adapted. This intricate chain of adaptations speaks to Hollywood’s obsession with the guaranteed “success” of sequels and re-makes (where success is measured largely on box-office numbers and financial gains for the studios); however, Sweeney Todd takes Sondheim’s play and runs with it in the best possible way. The visual depth Burton creates gives a substance to the narrative that begets a fascinating and strange viewing experience.
Sweeney Todd is a film of contrasts. The style and content of the piece contrast sharply with much of Hollywood’s more conventional productions, and the film’s artistic achievements contrast (quite nicely) with a clichéd notion of the Hollywood re-make. The story contrasts light humor with dark truth, and a love story with the darker narrative about Sweeney Todd’s tragic life. Burton has awakened me to the power of contrast as a narrative tool by employing it at every turn in his film. I feel quite lucky to have seen the light amid a brilliantly dark film.