Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
PLOT: Once upon a time a simple barber, his wife and their child were torn apart by an evil judge envious of the beautiful wife. The simple barber was taken away never to return again. But as this story goes, he does return with plans of vengeance. Once he arrives, he is taken in by a lonely widow who has developed a longing for this once simple barber. As their fates cross, he and his new lady make plans to give the closest shave in the world to the men of Fleet Street. It’s murder, revenge and cannibalism, a horror film in the shape of a musical. Thank Tim Burton and family for making it work.
Goth kids rejoice! You now have a musical that you can add to your already grim collection of songs of sorrow and woe. Yes, Tim Burton has assembled the best in his arsenal with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and breathed new life (possibly death) into Stephen Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. It is an astonishing tale that allows the blood to run as our hero, once Benjamin Barker, now Mr. Todd, brings bloody vengeance on Fleet Street. And it is all served up with gruesome love by Mrs. Lovett and her delicious meat pies. But be warned, if you have musical phobia, this is wall to wall singing. Yet I wouldn’t let that scare you too much, because the music is dark and vicious (yet, at times a bit too chipper), and feels especially fitting as Tim Burton surrounds his “hole in the world like a great black pit” with all sorts of deceitful and lecherous characters. Yes, Burton’s London is an especially seedy place that is haunted by a tale of sadness of a simple barber who was taken away for a crime he didn’t commit, just so the conniving Judge Turpin (a wicked Alan Rickman) could have grabs at the young man‘s wife and child. This tale of revenge feels more like a Chan-wook Park film then your average movie musical.
The action takes place quickly as a young man named Anthony Hope, (an ironic last name) played marvelously by Jamie Campbell Bower, is traveling on a ghostly looking ship singing about… well, hope and the prospects of London yet to come. But his singing is interrupted by the cold and tormented Todd, who sings of vermin and the filth that London is rotting with. It’s a great start and offers up Mr. Depp another iconic character. Once he arrives, he finds his old stomping ground of Fleet Street to be a miserable place, with Judge Turpin still a powerful presence. He also finds a sort of soul mate in Mrs. Lovett, a widow who is struggling in tough times. Her meat pies are “the worst pies in London” which she sings with sad regret, while the cockroach infested restaurant offers up visual proof of her claim. Yet she has something to offer her customer. It is the sad tale of the barber, with whom she recognizes the bitter and bleak Todd to be. It seems she has saved something for him, a special friend from his past. Up above her store, there is a room where she has kept his silver razors for if and when he returned.
Now with all this said, I am not a fan of musicals. I have very little patience for a bunch of people dancing around, singing when they should shut the hell up and just talk to each other. But occasionally, there will be one that peaks my interest. I had seen this with Angela Landsbury once on BRAVO, and I knew it was a Sondheim work, but in spite of my impatience for this type of entertainment, I did like it. Yet while Landsbury and George Hearn were stronger vocalists than Depp and Bonham-Carter, the modern day Todd and Lovett are much more fascinating. Unlike many of Tim Burtons films, the comedic moments are few and far between, and yes, that is a good thing. As Todd falls deeper into his need for vengeance and Lovett falls deeper in love with him, at all costs, the twisted love story blossoms into a beautiful black rose with tons of blood red thorns. But not to worry, there are a few hilarious moments, most notably, as Lovett sings “By The Sea”. While fantasizing about getting away from it all with her love and a young boy that she has taken in, Depp’s Todd looks gloomier and gloomier as the places she sings of get brighter and brighter. This is funny stuff, and Depp’s grimace is a welcome moment of humor.
When our anti-heroes open shop, so to speak, and the guests arrive, the mayhem ensues. Tons of slashed necks and bodies dumped upon a hard, cold cement floor, the morbid nature of the film is worn proudly. So it happens to have its characters singing about how nasty London is, or songs of love either for a young girl, or for those beautiful shining razors which blood will be shed. In fact, when he sings ever so sweetly to his instruments of death in “My Friends”, it is heartbreaking to see Mrs. Lovett outright claim her devotion as he only looks towards the steel death. It is a fantastic piece of filmmaking as we witness the sad and hopeless couple express love that will only destroy them. When we see Mrs. Lovett in the reflection of the blade, it is an utterly revealing moment of the monstrous acts to come.
Now for the climax, even if you have no idea what and who Sondheim is, you’ll be able to see a few twists easily. But this is how the play is written, and it is a forgivable offense because of Burton’s surprising flair for creating such a marvelous film out of a stage play. It often felt very real considering people are singing instead of speaking. It is further helped by the blood which soaks the screen in an almost Italian Giallo style. In fact, the flowing blood which seeps over the opening credits in a very satisfying way, is such a glowing bright red, and one of the few bright colors to appear on screen. It may be the most lively character in the black and white and grey city that seems far from full of life. In other words, Burton has transformed an impressive story of revenge that was also a Broadway musical into a wonderfully gothic motion picture. The cast is marvelous, and is carried to great heights by Depp and Bonham-Carter and all that surround them. Just be prepared for the music and the bloody slashings that make Fleet Street a dreary, dangerous and darkly beautiful place. My rating 9/10 -- JimmyO