by Steve Habrat
Much like 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, auteur Tim Burton was placed on this earth to also direct 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which is based on Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning 1979 musical. Burton’s 2007 version of the film, which naturally stars Johnny Depp in the lead role of a vengeful barber who enjoys slicing the throats of his customers, was not only one of the best films of the year in which it was released but also one of Tim Burton’s greatest films. Yes, I believe that it sits near the top with Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Part of what makes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street such a great film is that Burton successfully appeals to the wine-and-cheese crowd as well as snagging the Hot Topic crowd, which has got to be a first in the history of motion pictures. In addition to the usually flawless style, costumes, and set design, Burton hits a home run with Depp, who scales back the odd and makes Sweeney one of his more subtle characters. My suspicion is that the scaled back approach is in response to the singing that is required of Mr. Depp, who took vocal lessons and erupts in a voice that is not perfect but fittingly rough around the edges for such a dark film.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street introduces us to Benjamin Barker (Played by Johnny Depp), a barber who has returned to London after being banished for fifteen years for false charges by the wretched Judge Turpin (Played by Alan Rickman). It turns out that Turpin lusted after Barker’s wife, Lucy (Played by Laura Michelle Kelly), and wanted him out of the way so he could have her to himself. Assuming the alias “Sweeney Todd”, Barker makes his way to Fleet Street where he meets the equally demented Mrs. Lovett (Played by Helena Bonham Carter), who runs Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his wife committed suicide and that his teenage daughter Johanna (Played by Jayne Wisener) is being held against her will by Turpin. Whipping out his prized straight razor collection, Barker reopens his barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies and together they begin trying to lure in Turpin and his overweight associate Beadle Bamford (Played by Timothy Spall) to exact their revenge. They also decide that they are going to grind up the bodies of their victims and put them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies to cover their tracks.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Burton’s bloodiest film since the Headless Horseman galloped through his interpretation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow. Sweeney Todd is a nonstop freak show of a film, one that sprays Burton’s favored candle wax-esque blood out onto the audience from the opened necks of Sweeney’s victims. It’s a nasty piece of work and I mean that as a compliment. Given that Sweeney Todd is also a musical, the interest that many may have in the film will pale because most have a difficult time suspending the disbelief to really enjoy it. Burton understands this so rather than easily casting a slew of musicians to belt out Sondheim and Wheeler’s tunes, he turns to a handful of unexpected actors to do the jig. Burton places Depp and Cater right up front, both who lack voices that would make angles weep, belting out with voices that don’t seem too theatrical for this macabre outing. At times, they are a bit shrill but their left of center sound compliments the gloom quite nicely. Burton does even things out in the subplot involving the young sailor Anthony Hope (Played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who does have a musical background) and Barker’s daughter Johanna (portrayed by Irish singer Wisener), both who do have stage quality pipes on them.
If Depp and Carter are unlikely choices in the leads, the background actors are just as wild. Rickman, who also played Snape in the Harry Potter films, is another voice you would never expect to hear. We already knew he could do mean but it is good to see him dive in deeper with the protection of an R-rating. The same could be said about fellow Potter costar Spall, whose nasally voice is just the right amount of ugly to fit his physical appearance. The other surprise comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, THAT Sacha Baron Cohen) as the Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli who hides a dirty little secret. Cohen gets to flex his musical talents, which while not stage worthy, are still fitting for this film. He adds some quirky humor to all the bloodshed but when his turn comes to get evil, Cohen rises to the occasion and leaves us wanting more of his villainous turn. There is also the young Ed Sanders in the role of Toby, the boy assistant to Pirelli who mixes his tender affection for Mrs. Lovett in with a stunning vocal performance.
Sweeney Todd is ultimately Depp’s world and everyone else is just wandering the filthy streets. With his cheerless voice and heavy eyes, Depp is rather detached—a far throws from his energetic turns in films like Ed Wood and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a way, his blank slate is a welcomed approach because I was quick to assume this would be another one of his freak flag performances. He is electric next to the pasty Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who gets to do energetic wicked. A scene in which Mrs. Lovett shares a fantasy in which she marries Todd is a standout. Depp’s mug drooping into a frown will have you in stitches. When Depp and Carter harmonize, they are a grizzled knock-out, locked in a dance of death where Mrs. Lovett wields a rolling pin and Sweeney clutches a butchers cleaver is marvelous both in its symbolic imagery (it’s a bit obvious but cool) and its choreography. Another sequence of astonishing choreography is when Depp wanders the streets and snarls at his future victims, his voice going from smooth soaring to being spit onto the cheeks of men who don’t acknowledge him.
A Frankenstein’s monster of a film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a lumbering musical horror film that has held up and still locks me in when I revisit it. Balletic in pacing and with an abundance of gothic style, the film will leave you feeling nice and grimy after you’ve viewed it. It is faintly sexy and gloriously macabre with a gut punch of a tragic ending. In my opinion, Sweeney Todd is one of the more accessible musicals I have ever seen—never erupting into implausible song and dance numbers that are overly cheesy and remove us from the moment. It has buckets of gore for the horror crowd and actually has a number of hair-raising moments that will jolt you. It’s far from sophisticated but by now most should know what to expect by Burton but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of Burton’s most consistent films. A real grotesque freak fest.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is available on Blu-ray and DVD.