“May I have your attention, puh-lease!”
Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is not your run-of-the-mill Broadway spectacle. This thing is dark, gory, and bleak to the end with little in the way of joy and hope seeping through. I had seen the staged production featuring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury a couple years back, so I was familiar with the story before sitting down to experience Tim Burton’s vision. I guess by knowing Sondheim’s other musical Into the Woods, he is accustomed to darker, off-kilter works, however, this one is way out there. A story that involves a falsely imprisoned barber returning to London in order to seek revenge on the judge that put him there, and subsequently stole his wife and daughter, by slitting throats and hiding the bodies in the city’s best meat pies is not winning any feel-good awards. More a cult phenomenon than a huge Broadway success, I think it may find a new audience in theatres, if for nothing else but the inclusion of Johnny Depp. He alone will draw some viewers in, especially those that the trailer fooled into thinking it isn’t wall-to-wall singing. Oh, and so I don’t mislead you, when I say musical and non-stop singing, don’t think you’ll be toe-tapping on the way home. These songs won’t be sticking in your head.
Aesthetically, Burton has knocked this one out of the park. The muted grays really help the bright red blood pop off the screen as well as make the “fantasy” dream sequence even funnier than it is by itself, allowing it to have such vibrant colors. This is London at its dingiest, grime-filled in every shot. Cinematically, all the framing is unique and never boring, especially in scenes where our two leads share a duet and we see them in fore and background, even through reflections on the straightedge razor. As for the blood—besides the hokey, watered-down red streams coming from bare necks—it is handled well. It’s more realistic once the initial spurts are concluded—turning into thick ooze on the floor—but I guess the fakeness helps add a little necessary humor to the otherwise depressing tale.
This film is by all accounts a Tim Burton enterprise. From the look and feel to the casting of his wife and Depp, this is a much-anticipated return to his earlier films for me. After his recent string of horrible remakes in Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was almost ready to write him off. If not for the wonderful Big Fish in the middle of those, I might have been really apprehensive in going to see this, especially since it is pretty much a remake itself. Thankfully, besides it dragging a bit in the middle, (the play does too, though, so I don’t fault Burton), and the storyline with Anthony and Joanna being so thin and almost thrown in haphazardly, the movie really surprised me with its humor and unabashed use of violence. I would have been very disappointed if he toned it down rather than amped it up as he does.
All the acting is surprisingly great too. Depp is fantastic and subtle in his portrayal of Benjamin Barker turned Sweeney Todd, hiding the pent-up aggression as best he can before finally needing at outlet of murder. He could have gone over-the-top with it, as he unfortunately did in Charlie, but instead reined it in and probably came off funnier as a result, specifically with the facial expressions in the fantasy scene and throughout. While I don’t think he could have done the play on stage, I still think vocally he did a superb job. The rasp and the deep baritone fit perfectly and his depressed state adds to the tragic end soon to come. Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall are all good in their roles, nothing special, but totally fitting the aesthetic—if anything Carter and Spall may be a bit too creepy. The real supporting standouts, though, are young Ed Sanders as Toby and the hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen as Signor Petrelli, a rival barber. Cohen is a master of priceless voices and adds a nice layer to the proceedings.
Sweeney Todd is not a perfect film and definitely not one for the masses, but as far as a cult musical with gore, it does the job. If anything, I hope this means good things for Burton’s cinematic future. He is at his best with dark tales like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman and should stay away from the remake machine. Always gorgeous to watch, this one has some substance to it as well. A perfect ending definitely helps make up for the missteps along the journey too.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 8/10 | ★ ★ ★