Review: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
By now, a lot has been written about how director Tim Burton was the perfect choice to bring Steven Sondheim’s macabre musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the big screen. With a trademark style that’s dark yet whimsical, Burton has made a career out of embracing projects that cater to his bizarre sensibilities. The mastermind behind Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas likely leapt at the opportunity to add the story of a singing, murderous barber to his filmography. The good ink he’s receiving is quite just: Burton’s Sweeney is the best movie musical since Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning Chicago, and much of that comes from such an ideal pairing of artist and material. It also comes from the fact that like Marshall, Burton respects the constraints of the stage within the film frame while still utilizing the almost limitless visual opportunities film can afford.
As in Sondheim’s version and the legends that preceded it, the movie takes place in London, though it’s not the London you recognize. It’s a wasteland of puddles and shadow, seen through Burton’s camera lens in perpetual grayscale and muted tones. Benjamin Barker has returned there following a forced fifteen year absence at sea, now calling himself Sweeney Todd and sporting a Cruella DeVil hairstyle only a hairstylist could love. Embittered by false charges and the loss of a wife and daughter – both befallen him at the hands of the odious Judge Turpin – Mr. Todd has a mind for vengeance and a thirst for blood that can apparently only be quenched by his glistening straight razors. He meets the reclusive Mrs. Lovett, a figure from his past of which time and pain has erased any memory, who runs the nastiest meat pie bakery in town and conveniently lives just beneath Todd’s old barbershop. Together, they begin a twisted business/romance; he satisfying his appetite for human life with each new doomed client and she cooking the remains into delectable, posthumous pastries (In one of the film’s more devilish numbers, the pair melodically proclaims, “it’s man eating man out there, why deny them in here!?!”).
Johnny Depp, of course, plays the title role, marking the sixth outing he and Burton have made together as star and director. Sweeney feels like the accomplishment the two have been working toward their entire collaborative career, with Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the clay-mation Corpse Bride standing as formidable precursors. You get the sense that the maker and the muse have come to recognize how to best combine their individual skills, and here the mash-up feels the most lived-in and refined. Depp’s embodiments of Burton’s eccentric leading men have become some of the screen’s most immortalized characters, and Sweeney is destined to join, if not top, that list. While he doesn’t bowl you over with his newly unveiled pipes the way, say, Ewan McGregor did in Moulin Rouge! or Catherine Zeta-Jones did – explosively – in Chicago, Depp was the only choice to play this character. To say he is one of the most talented actors of his generation is an obvious understatement at this point. The fascinating thing about Depp is that he doesn’t choose roles, the roles choose him. His unique looks, style and track record have made him his own niche market.
Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s real-life love, is Mrs. Lovett, in one of 2007’s finest supporting performances. Also a Burton film alum, Bonham Carter looks right at home in the director’s worlds, here appearing as though she was born and raised in Fleet Street’s gutters. Buxom and big-haired though crawling with filth, she’s like Rob Zombie’s object of desire had he lived in the 1800’s. She gets the mood of the piece just right (even more so than Depp), belting and shuffling her way through the part with a nightmarish glee. The rest of the cast includes Alan Rickman as Turpin, go-to slithery side player Timothy Spall as his devious right-hand man, Sacha Baron Cohen as a showy and competitive colleague, and newcomers Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower as Todd’s daughter and shipmate, respectively. Colorful highlights be them all, this is Johnny and Helena’s show all the way.
The split-level home base of Todd and Lovett’s joint venture, Turpin’s impressively swanky flat and the charcoal-tinted cobblestone alleyways that intersect them are essentially the only locations to be seen in Sweeney. Burton wisely keeps his atmosphere fairly enclosed, acquiescing to the limits of the original Broadway show. The action rarely strays far from the demon barber’s deadly headquarters, and just as Marshall did, Burton makes you feel as though the curtain could drop at any moment. Still, he makes the movie feel big. Speedy, CG-enhanced, first-person tours through the city streets and sweeping, stylized crane shots that go high above London’s rainy rooftops suggest that another town full of unsuspecting victims lives just next door. Like great theater, the movie needn’t show you everything to make you feel it.
Indeed, Burton has the most fun and the film the most pick-up the moment Mr. Todd slashes his first throat (which is strategically delayed to the breaking point). Rather than being terrifying, Sweeney’s elegant use of plasma is sinfully and playfully delightful, as if Mr. Scissorhands picked up where Kill Bill’s The Bride left off and traveled across the pond. Every spurt paints splashes of vibrant red on Burton’s washed-out landscape, and the movie becomes a virtual ballet of blood. The kills begin to merge as seamlessly with the songs as the lyrics do, and the way the film makes light of it extracts nearly all of the offensiveness that may steer viewers away. This is not Saw with song, it’s The Sound of Music with a sharp, deadly edge. Its only weakness comes from a side story that it spends a great deal of time building up, then inexplicably leaves hanging in the air. Whether that be a flaw of the original tale or an oversight of Burton’s editing process is unbeknownst to me. What I do know is that you’d be hard pressed to find a film of last year with all of its elements as well-suited to its material as this one. It’s bloody good fun.