Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall
written by John Logan and directed by Tim Burton
rated R for graphic bloody violence.

Based on the stage musical by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd is a dark, bloody story of revenge and cannibalism; kind of a cross between The Count of Monte Cristo and Titus Andronicus. Innocent young barber Benjamin Barker (Depp) is arrested and imprisoned on false charges by the evil Judge Turpin (Rickman). Fifteen years later, Barker returns hiding behind a new name, Sweeney Todd, and returns to his former home, a ratty flat located above Mrs. Lovett’s (Bonham Carter) bake shop, home of the worst pies in London.

Once there, he discovers that the judge took advantage of his wife (who poisoned herself) and then adopted his daughter (Jayne Wisener). Vowing revenge, he takes up his razors once more and commences to plot. Meanwhile, Turpin plans to marry his young ward and a fresh-faced sailor (Jamie Bower) that returned to London with Todd, becomes infatuated with her and decides to steal her away. Before long, Sweeney has discovered what every good Calvinist already knows, that everyone deserves to die (“the lives of the wicked should be made brief/for the rest of us death will be a relief”), and Mrs. Lovett has risen to the occasion with a novel way to dispose of the corpses.

It goes without saying that nothing good can come of all this, despite the beauty of the musical numbers that move the plot forward. However, a casual moviegoer might well be shocked by just how dark things can get when left to fester for two hours in the iniquity of Victorian London. Be forewarned, while Sweeney Todd is not relentlessly violent by any means, when things cut loose they really cut loose. I am not aware of a more graphic portrayal of throat-slitting in mainstream film, and the movie is determined that you should comprehend the sheer volume of blood contained in the human body (hint: a lot). Furthermore, the final half-hour or so is unrelentingly bleak.

These are appropriate trappings for a story that is ultimately about the grim harvest of sin and revenge. It brings to mind the words of a character from No Country for Old Men, another of the great films from this year: “All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, there’s more going out the door. After a while, you just got to try and get a tourniquet on it.” The implied comparison between the impact of revenge on the soul and blood gushing from an open wound is especially appropriate in this context.

Those caveats aside, if you can stomach the occasional gore (you have eyelids, don’t you? use them) and a story which is ultimately almost completely devoid of happiness, Sweeney Todd is a thrilling spectacle on several levels. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are magnificent performers, and their eyes and voices infuse the lyrics of the songs with a crucial extra layer of meaning. They make it possible to appreciate the emotional anguish, fury and despair of their characters in ways that simply aren’t possible for an audience member in the balcony section of a live stage performance.

The entire cast, in fact, is well-chosen. Rickman channels a blood-curdling creepiness in Turpin’s sleazy, predatory sexuality, and Spall is appropriately fawning and sinister as his toady. I was especially impressed, though, by the younger cast members, all of whom are pretty much unknowns (for two of them, Sweeney Todd is their first feature film). Wisener has a beautiful voice and a palpable innocence and sadness that is perfect for Joanna. Bower has the requisite fresh-faced naivete, but with a serious, determined edge. As a young man infatuated, he is easy to root for and care about (significant, as I often find that this is not the case, cf. Marius in most adaptations of Les Miserables). Best of all, perhaps, is Ed Sanders as Toby, the cheeky waif Mrs. Lovett rescues from the abusive clutches of rival barber Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a surprisingly tolerable turn). His character grows the most throughout the movie, and Sanders really sells it.

Tim Burton was indeed the perfect choice to bring this story to the screen, pulling no punches in his portrayal of the grime and wickedness in the hearts of London and her citizens. The environments are deliciously grim and gray, and there is some notably great work from the costume and make-up departments as well. The songs are cleverly staged and shot in a way that takes full advantage of the camera’s freedom, but above all (as I mentioned) they are a real pleasure to listen to. It might almost be worth it to buy a ticket, close your eyes, and just listen. I’m not entirely certain that I want to see Sweeney Todd again (although I’m beginning to suspect that I do), but I know I want to hear it again. It’s an excellent production and a great tragedy that generates some genuine food for thought and more than a few catching ditties.

~ by Jared on December 21, 2007.

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