Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan (screenplay), Stephan Sondheim (musical)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall
Welcome to the deep, dark abyss of Tim Burton’s mind, my friends. In a land where logic takes back seat to lavish set pieces, art design, and terrible beauty, storytelling is of the most paramount importance to make the movie work. With Burton’s obsession with visuals and macabre humor, this can be a problem. Never has his ability, neigh, gift for storytelling been so brilliantly fused with his other obsessions as it is in Sweeney Todd.
It helps that Burton is working with an already legendary source material by the late, great Stephan Sondheim. Though he was reluctant to approach a live musical, his risk has paid off and he appears a natural at it. This is an entire movie filled with risks, especially with the casting.
Burton regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter may not seem too risky of a choice, but when they’ve never sang a word on screen before and have not been professionally trained, it is in Hollywood. Luckily, Burton only appears mad and actually isn’t.
Almost every one of his artistic and creative risks pays off in this film. It’s natural to assume he knows what he’s doing visually, and it’s splendid when he finds a script that fuses with that. A revenge story of the most violent sort, the tale may not be especially original. But as Tarantino did in Kill Bill, Burton puts everything that makes him a great director into this film to lift any semblance it has to convention.
When barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London from an Australian work camp after being falsely accused of a crime by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), he seeks revenge. He learns from his secret admirer Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), that Turpin raped his wife, causing her suicide, and is holding his daughter as his ward. Barker, now named Sweeney Todd for some reason, plots to lure Turpin into his tonsorial shop and slit his throat after giving him a shave.
The legend of the demon barber of Fleet Street is a European folktale, but under Burton’s command it feels like a beautiful nightmare. He approaches it with pitch-black visuals and pale skin, save for a happy flashback and Mrs. Lovett’s wishful thinking in “By the Sea.” Shades of black and gray never looked so colorful as under his watchful eye.
It’s quite typical in modern musicals to let the songs do the talking, and the large choreographed dance numbers overwhelm any sense of story. Here, Burton fuses his camera with his music, adding deeper meaning and eloquent beauty to them. In the song “My Friends,” one of the film’s early high points, Todd rediscovers his razors and duets with Mrs. Lovett, who competes for his attention with the blades. The swooning camera keeps its eye on both of them, and when Todd’s arms outstretch it zooms out to give us a view of the entire parlor. Then, the lights dim as he outstretches his hands and yells “At last, my arm is complete again!” Visual poetry and beautifully haunting melodies all achieved in the movie’s first act.
As the film progresses and Todd fails to kill Turpin, he and Lovett become a demented dream team. He slits the throats of customers, she cooks them into meat pies. The two share another duet on “A Little Priest,” a black-humor song that ranks among the best in any movie musical. They contemplate the different tastes of the passersby, finally concluding “It’s man devouring man my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”
Later, when they begin serving the pies, you will never be so reviled at a restaurant full of people eating. The sound editing heightens the crunching noises to great effect. This scene, more than any others, shows us the physical manifestation of the treachery of almost every character in the film.
The characters are all full of deceit, but despite that, they never really get what they want. It would be a positive moral lesson if the story didn’t focus on a man abducted and imprisoned for no other reason than having a pretty wife. “Foolishness,” Mrs. Lovett dubs his crime, but now with her help he plans to make fools, and dinner, out of everyone else.
Depp and Bonham Carter are excellent, both worthy of Oscar nominations, though Depp was the only one who got it. He delivers probably his greatest performance as Todd, finding the emotional hubris in his character even as he goes on a killing spree.
Bonham Carter also achieves great heights as Mrs. Lovett, going with Todd’s demented flow to try and win his heart. Her untrained voice will haunt you because of its reliance on emotion to get the point across. It’s surprising how good she and Depp are together, to say the least.
In the end, the film has it’s faults. The overly-emo plot line and subsequent under-drawn love story between Sweeney Todd’s daughter and the sailor that saved his life never really bears any fruit. It’s minimal in the larger scope of things, but it is a fault.
The films of Tim Burton all have outcasts, often satirizing the upper class. This may be his finest work, with audiences more than ever willing to follow him across his demented disjoint, into a world filled with haunting shadows and terrible beauty.