|Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)|
|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 21 December 2007|
Though Stephen Sondheim purists may wince, the rest of us—those not very troubled by gouts of blood, anyway—are going to embrace Tim Burton’s movie of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” It’s not merely a filmed stage production, it’s an authentic movie, blending song, performance, design, camera and other film elements into a smoothly-flowing whole. A question many had was whether Johnny Depp, who hasn’t really sung professionally before (though he was in a rock band), could handle the intricate vocal demands of the lead role. The answer: yes he can, and very well. And he has to: the story is almost entirely conveyed in song.
This is the most mature and sophisticated film from Burton so far, miles away from the sentimentality of “Big Fish,” the whimsy of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” or the fairy-tale sensibility of “Edward Scissorhands.” Though not an especially expensive movie, “Sweeney Todd” is gorgeously realized, set in a dark and brooding 19th century London, with most of the color leached out of the images. Except for red, that is. There’s lots of red.
Sweeney Todd probably never existed, though Peter Haining has written a book claiming otherwise. Todd was the main character in a penny-dreadful novel, “The String of Pearls,” by Thomas Prest. George Dibdin-Pitt adapted it into an 1847 play of the same title as this movie. There were other film versions, including Tod Slaughter’s robust 1936 barnstorming melodrama, which for those with a taste for such things, is highly recommended. There was a 1998 TV movie, “The Tale of Sweeney Todd,” starring Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley and directed by John Schlesinger. There was another TV production in 2006, starring Ray Winstone and Essie Davis. But the two most significant presentations of Sweeney’s story were the 1973 play by Christopher Bond, and the immensely successful 1979 Broadway musical adaptation of the Bond play, with a book by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim and songs by Sondheim. The Bond play classical revenge elements; in earlier productions, Sweeney Todd and his co-conspirator Mrs. Lovett were motivated by greed and little more. Bond added a wife and daughter to the mix, elements that turned Sweeney Todd’s simple story of multiple murders into a near-tragic tale of revenge. This movie is based on the Sondheim-Wheeler production.
In the mid-19th century, obsessed, vengeful Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after 15 years of unjust imprisonment in Australia. He escaped, helped by young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who’s looking forward to London. Barker, who has changed his name to Sweeney Todd, is also anticipating London—to get revenge on corrupt, cruel Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who sent Barker, a barber, to prison to get his grasping hands on the barber’s wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly).
Todd returns to Fleet Street; Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who makes what even she admits are the “worst pies in London,” soon recognizes Sweeney. He’s unaware of it, but she’s been in love with him for years. She reveals Lucy killed herself, and that her daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is Turpin’s ward. Turpin’s main accomplice in Barker’s conviction and even now is beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).
Mrs. Lovett has saved Sweeney’s beloved razors; “my friends,” he calls them in song, holding one aloft: “At last my arm is complete again!” Attracted by the spiel of young Toby (Edward Sanders) to the stall of flamboyantly Italian barber signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), Sweeney challenges him to a shaving duel, which Sweeney wins.
Later, Pirelli visits the shop Todd’s installed upstairs over Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, and reveals he’s actually English, and once worked for Barker—and recognizes Todd as that man. He threatens blackmail, so Todd slashes his throat—and a vast gout of blood bursts forth, stunning in the almost black-and-white surroundings. It’s just a taste of what’s to come.
Mrs. Lovett takes Toby in as an apprentice, while elsewhere Anthony falls in love with Johanna from afar, despite Turpin’s thunderous threats. Todd cajoles Bamford, who brings Turpin to Sweeney’s shop, but before the barber can act, there’s an interruption, the outcome of which ensures Turpin is unlikely to return.
Burning with revenge, cynical beyond all measure, Todd meets with Mrs. Lovett, wondering how to get rid of Pirelli’s body. She has an idea—she can make meat pies of it. Who can they kill? Some elements of class struggle from the play remain, even though as in the play, Todd and Lovett conclude “we’ll serve anyone at all.”
Todd reconstructs his barber chair so he can dump his customers with slashed throats into the basement, where Mrs. Lovett will grind them into meat for her pies, disposing of the rest in the always-roaring furnace that serves as a pie oven. Though his anger is reserved for Turpin, Sweeney soon begins cascading surprised, murdered customers into Lovett’s basement. She becomes the rage of London, with people from all walks of life flooding into her pie shop for her succulent wares.
The story heads for its bitter, ironic ending.
Although there were musical numbers in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Burton has never directed a musical before—but by the evidence here, was an ideal choice. He treats the musical numbers as dialogue scenes, with emotions, plot advancement and movement incorporated. All of his actors do their own singing, though none are trained singers, and all acquit themselves very well, mostly because they are primarily actors.
The film was shot on stages in England, and has a dark, cramped feeling, entirely appropriate to this material. Cinematographer Darusz Wolski works hand-in-glove with production designer Dante Ferretti; they create a world that could generate a killer like Sweeney Todd, with his gleaming blades, haunted eyes and sinister grin. Although most of the movie is dark and grim, flashbacks to when Barker was arrested are in full, vivid color, a startling contrast. The screenplay is by John Logan, who also wrote “Gladiator” and “The Aviator;” this isn’t as epic as either of those, but it has the same intelligent intensity.
There are no traces of Burton’s usual stylistic flourishes—not one spiral, for example—but it’s still clearly a film only he could have made. However, unlike all his other films, there’s very little humor on hand here; even “Batman” had its comic elements, as did “Planet of the Apes.” Except for a few fleeting touches by Sacha Baron Cohen (this is his first movie since “Borat”), the humor is confined to Sondheim’s intricate, elegant lyrics. The rivers of bright red blood are exaggerated enough, like the film around them, that they are clearly unreal, but they don’t shade over into satire. Although this is a musical, almost an opera—there are some but not many spoken lines—it’s also an R-rated horror movie. Parents: don’t disregard that R rating. This isn’t Johnny Depp as semi-goofy Captain Jack, this is Johnny Depp with a razor, and it cuts deep.
Though it’s a work all its own, “Sweeney Todd” reflects various influences—the penny dreadfuls, the horror movies of both Universal and Hammer, Dickens and other cultural areas of input. Sondheim himself was partly inspired by the 1940s thriller “Hangover Square” and its magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann. Tim Burton feels that Alan Rickman’s performance has elements of Vincent Price, a Burton favorite.
Depp is excellent. It’s beginning to look like there’s nothing he cannot do, and do well. He is a character actor as lead, not a star in the old-fashioned Hollywood sense. He’s thoroughly into every character he plays, and there are few links between them other than the man himself. It’s just about impossible from watching Depp performances to get an idea of what he’s like as a person, so thoroughly does he immerse himself in his roles. And now he sings, too.
The production notes insist that Helena Bonham Carter was selected from among several promising applicants for the role of Mrs. Lovett, but it’s hard not to suspect that she got the role mostly because she’s Burton’s sweetie. Burton did want to cast both Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett as younger than in the theatrical productions (Len Cariou was the first Todd, and Angela Lansbury was Mrs. Lovett), so Carter does seem appropriate in that sense. But she also does well with the songs, though at times she’s hard to understand; on the other hand, I don’t think she has a career as a solo singer ahead of her.
She and Depp are a matched pair; both have hair that look like explosions in yarn factories, both have pallid faces and black-ringed eyes, both are slender and graceful, both dress in black. Carter has the harder chore as an actor, as Depp has one primary motivation: revenge, a feeling so powerful it drives all others out, and leads to a horrible climax. Mrs. Lovett loves Sweeney, though she can’t really get through to him on that level. She imagines a happy life at the seashore for the two of them and Toby, but even in her fantasies, Sweeney is closed off, turned inward, inviolably sullen. (There is some humor in these scenes.)
Alan Rickman is always good, especially as arrogant villains, as here (a somewhat different interpretation of Turpin than in the Sondheim play), and Timothy Spall is a great character actor with his pudgy, mobile face and flashing teeth. Baron Cohen and young Edward Sanders (who has an impressive voice) are both very good, though Baron Cohen isn’t on screen very long. Jamie Campbell Bower and Laura Michelle Kelly are satisfactory in their roles, but the roles themselves are largely perfunctory: the play required some lightness, and the young lovers provide it.
Sondheim’s play ran about three hours, the movie less than two, so much had to be cut here and there. Fans of the play will notice the lack; the rest of us won’t—although the young-love interludes with Anthony and Johanna aren’t well integrated. The movie also slows its pace around the midpoint—just before Todd sets up his body-dumping barber chair.
This is one of the best movies of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s recommended for everyone. As stylized as it is, it’s also essentially realistic—there’s no fantasy—so the slashed throats, dumped bodies (landing headfirst on stone with awful crunches) and violence are too realistic for some people. Be warned: this is most certainly not a movie for children, though it’s likely young teenagers will mop it up. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is one of a kind: an explicitly gory horror musical.