Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 12/24/07 15:43:53

"There was a barber and his wife..."
5 stars (Awesome)

To say that the splatter-goth musical 'Sweeney Todd' is an ideal match for Tim Burton’s manic-depressive sensibility would be to make the understatement of the movie year.

In a way, this director’s entire darkly gaudy career has been working up to an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s nastily sportive Broadway hit. (The material has been around since the 1840s, and a Sweeney Todd movie with Tod Slaughter predated Sondheim’s work by 43 years.) As in his other goth-horror Johnny Depp vehicle Sleepy Hollow, Burton drains the screen of all color except blood red. The effect in both films is like Nosferatu produced by Hammer, and someday they will make a dazzling creature double feature — except that in Sleepy Hollow Depp pursues the creature, and here he is one.

His hair teased into a mad-scientist Beethoven helmet with a shock of white, Depp’s Sweeney Todd enters the picture seething with contempt and fury, and he almost never lets up. Character subtlety has never been Burton’s strong point; fortunately, the material doesn’t demand it. It’s a gory cartoon with operatic flourishes and a lineage that includes Titus Andronicus, EC Comics, and Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers. It’s a revenge play, with Sweeney plotting to give very close shaves to the men who took his wife and daughter away and locked him up, while Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett, who bakes meat pies, proposes a pragmatic way to dispose of the bodies.

Bonham Carter and Depp, surly goth twins at the fetid prom of London, approach Sweeney Todd as the live-action sequel to their previous film for Burton, Corpse Bride. Depp stands stock still, gnashing his rotted teeth (at times he resembles Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck in Burton’s Batman Returns), while Bonham Carter whirls around plotting and fantasizing about the picnic-filled marriage she and Sweeney will have. They’re in decent voice, though Sondheim’s silverstreak lyrics are so densely packed they’re difficult for these lesser-trained singers to navigate. Other actors — like Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as Turpin’s obsequious henchman, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the boastful scam artist Pirelli — get easier songs and more room to breathe and show off their pipes.

The pumping, hissing blood is, as Burton hoped, more cathartic than disgusting. It’s theatrical blood, Hammer blood, and for the sexless Sweeney these gushers are the only hot release he can have. Eros, meet Thanatos. Romance swirls all around Sweeney — Turpin’s lust for Sweeney’s teenage daughter Johanna, whom he has adopted as his “ward”; a young sailor yearning for Johanna; Mrs. Lovett’s unrequited (and hardly noticed) love for Sweeney — but all he’s interested in is the dark romance of vengeance. (He refers to his silver razors as his friends.) Sweeney Todd, in whatever incarnation, has been one of the oddest stories ever to capture the mass public fancy, and Burton and odd go together like cake and ice cream. He’s never been afraid of the grand gesture (or the Grand Guignol gesture); there’s a long, computer-enhanced pullback from Sweeney brandishing his razor through the towers and tenements of London, and it’s a breathtaker, a tour through a macabre toybox.

It’s a powerfully weird movie for a studio to position as its big holiday release. But it fulfills a promise I haven’t felt Burton has delivered on before, not this completely. He needs a simple story, and big, flamboyant moments to offset the wretched pinpricks of despair, and loud music, and a vehicle that finds both poetry and humor in horror, and Johnny Depp. Well, Burton’s checklist is full this time. Sweeney Todd, which went before cameras last February, was Burton’s late Christmas gift to himself, and now it’s his Christmas gift to those of us who’ve been his loyal fans for the last twenty years.

This black cauldron of a film, with its spider-blood visual scheme, may be the purest example of imagemaking the movies have given us in far too long.

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