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Sweeney Todd,
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 adorns him.

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 Broadway-bound.

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 pies.

Derek McCaw

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