Genre: Horror and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 56 min.
Release Date: December 21st, 2007 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tim Burton Actors: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener, Ed Sanders
ased on the Broadway musical (from the book by Hugh Wheeler, adapted from the play by Christopher Bond), “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” follows a vicious cycle of revenge as Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns home to London (in 1846) to punish those who wronged him so long ago. Assuming the alias of Sweeney Todd and setting up a barber shop over Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) meat pie restaurant, the two enter into a heinous partnership that will allow Barker to exact his revenge. Murdering clients and baking their bodies into goodies leads to an epic confrontation with corrupt judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who previously stole away Barker’s wife and currently plans to marry his ward (and Barker’s daughter) Johanna (Jayne Wisener).
As bizarre as the story is, it works on quite a few levels. It is literally unlike anything committed to the big screen before, with its wide array of odd imagery and fiercely vibrant performances. The fact that it is a musical is its most inspiring aspect, considering the subject matter is unbelievably dark. To blend slashing throats with melodic tunes is a feat perhaps no one but director Tim Burton could pull off. The heavy contrast of jovial singing and graphic violence is utterly singular, with much of the credit going to Steven Sondheim for crafting such luscious music and lyrics to go with the sinister plot. That stark opposition adds to the undeniably visceral components, which at times become so outrageous that viewers can’t help but laugh or applaud.
Those unfamiliar with the production’s origins may be surprised to find that the majority of the film is sung. Rather than inserting musical numbers into the story, the entire narrative is essentially revealed through musical exchanges between the actors – comparable to an opera – as ominous lyrics foreshadow the visuals to come. Strangely, with so many numbers throughout, very few carry a tune or melody that are instantly unforgettable. The clever writing exhibits Sondheim’s excellence with the art form, but even the more light-hearted ditties rarely recall the catchy riffs of macabre musical relatives “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Little Shop of Horrors.” While the tunes themselves may not be overly memorable, their delivery certainly is, with several extremely gifted actors showcasing talents that haven’t been previously exploited in this way (including Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).
Johnny Depp is the perfect match for portraying the scheming, brooding, perpetually depressed barber, with a morose presence, pale face, and sullen voice that fit with the persona he seems to carry in every project. He may not be the high point of the singing performances, but his duets with wild-haired accomplice Lovett are easily the most impressive in the picture. Newcomer Edward Sanders as Toby (the diminutive assistant to Todd’s rival, Pirelli, played by Cohen) steals his fair share of scenes as well, while even veteran actor Alan Rickman joins in briefly.
As one could expect from an R-rated Tim Burton thriller about a sadistic murderer with a penchant for straight razors, there is plenty of bloodshed. In a manner reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” the violence is so excessively gory that one quickly becomes desensitized to the carnage. Throat-slashing montages can instead be appreciated for their morbid humor and the eventual, comedically cannibalistic endeavors they represent. Plenty of physical humor also finds its way into “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” though the story at the heart of this musical is so horrific and tragic that the overall mood is rarely able to rise above grim. The atmosphere is also sensational, with foggy streets and the haunting menace of Mrs. Lovett’s bistro recalling the eerie set designs of “Sleepy Hollow,” while a striking dream sequence leans toward something from “Beetlejuice.” Every character’s costume also superbly matches their physique, from inky dresses to garish garb (specific colors have a way of emerging radiantly from the generally muted palette). The look is so heavily desaturated that at times the film appears almost entirely black-and-white. But this harsh color scheme does wonders for the makeup, sets, and Grand Guignol fashioning.
In the end, the movie is more visually stunning than musically memorable, but it nevertheless presents a grandly ghastly tale of love and retribution in a style unlike any before it. Bloodthirsty to an extreme, but with entertainment value to match, Burton’s latest choice of adaptation is one of the most tailor-made properties he could ever hope to tackle. Gothic, violent, tense, dramatic, comedic musicals don’t come around too often.
– The Massie Twins