The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Though a lot of people try to deny it, the
holidays have more than their fair share of darkness. People
feel their loneliness more acutely; their melancholy grows.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street isn't
set around Christmas - its London might not know such cheer
- but that loneliness relentlessly drives it. Grim, at times
ghoulishly funny, it's also tremendously toe-tapping.
Yes, toe-tapping, because though the ads
won't betray it as such, this dark revenge story is also
a brilliant musical. Based on a 19th century "penny dreadful"
and adapted to cheap exploitation films in England a couple
of times, Sweeney Todd inspired Stephen Sondheim
to write one of his most cynical works. Most of it remains
on screen, with only rare bouts of spoken dialogue interrupting
the relentless score.
It's now hard to imagine anyone but Tim
Burton tackling this for the screen. The best of his films
often reflect a troubled relationship with mankind - not
particularly proud of the association he has with them,
and more fascinated with and understanding of the monsters.
Here, the monster is Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), forced
by an unjust world to corrode and harden into Sweeney Todd.
Burton demonstrates that visually by leeching
the color from Depp's form. In flashback, young Barker has
a healthful glow. As Sweeney Todd, Depp lurches as a black-and-white
figure, until the precious rubies of his victims' blood
The motif follows with his partner-in-crime,
Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), though we don't see
her past. One suspects that she was always dark and brooding,
contriving to catch the attention of the beautiful man Barker
had been. In her fantasy number, "By the Sea," she does
come alive through the imagined attentions of Sweeney Todd
and orphan servant Toby (Ed Sanders), all the more pitiful
when dark reality returns.
But don't think this movie gets bogged
down in sentimentality. Far from it. If you side with Sweeney
Todd as he seeks revenge for the loss of his wife and daughter,
that has to curdle once he sings "we all deserve to die."
Then you just have to enjoy as he sets up his evil barber
chair that dumps victims into a pit so they can be ground
up and baked into meat pies.
His main enemy, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman),
should serve as a symbol of justice, but of course does
not. Turpin condemned Barker to prison, raped his wife and
stole his daughter. In this world, Justice is not only blind;
it's clearly deaf and dumb. Underneath Turpin, the Beadle
Bamford (Timothy Spalls) writhes and hisses as the stubby
arm of the law.
Off on the side, there are pale young lovers,
but on both stage and screen, they can't hold a candle to
the terrible action at the fore of Sweeney Todd.
Still, Burton does his best to make them real, too, but
innocence has always been awkward for him. As Johanna, the
yellow-haired daughter in question, Jayne Wisener follows
Burton's long tradition of ethereal blondes. What makes
her stand out in that tradition is that she may actually
be blonde, after Winona Ryder, Cristina Ricci, Lisa
Marie and Carter herself in Big Fish.
Despite Sweeney Todd being long
established material, this manages to still feel like a
very personal Burton film. Using almost all of his tricks,
Burton delivers an absolute masterpiece.
His zooming camera that makes his landscapes
look like toys here actually serves to move the plot along
- both eliminating exposition and underscoring the desperation
of Sweeney trying to find his place and his revenge. This
world is in a bubble under Burton's control - and though
the chorus no longer sings of Sweeney serving "…a dark and
a vengeful god," that deity is Burton.
Or maybe it's Stephen Sondheim, who advised
and approved of Burton's vision. Certainly, the two of them
were right in casting Depp. It's not just another bravura
performance, which will be frightening to those that have
gotten used to him as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka. Hints
of Sparrow's accent occasionally break through, but that
relentless black gaze born of sorrow - that's new.
New to most of us, too, would be Depp's
singing voice. This production chose actors first, singers
second. On stage, the singing had to be bombastic, but on
screen, things can get more intimate. Yet Depp's voice has
a surprising amount of power, just more rock-trained than
The rest of the cast handles the music
with mixed results. At first, Carter's voice comes off as
pretty reedy, but eventually that, too, starts working as
we see how fragile the demonic Lovett really is. Even Sacha
Baron Cohen comes across as a strong singer in his role
as a rival barber.
So it's a strange horror musical that puts
the horror first. That may not make it the feel good hit
of the holidays, but Sweeney Todd is still one of
the best films of the year, a transporting experience that
absolutely satisfies…just like one of Mrs. Lovett's meat