Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener
Rated: R for graphic bloody violence.
Parental Notes: This film deserves its R rating — there is plenty of gore spraying about here, and lots of dead bodies, body parts, and gaping wounds. Not for youngsters or the faint of heart.
The tale of Sweeney Todd, the barber who murdered his clients and gave the corpses to an associate to bake into meat pies, has been around since at least 1846, when it was published as a penny dreadful serial novel. In 1979, Steven Sondheim (composer of musicals like “West Side Story”) turned the tale into a Broadway musical. Now, Tim Burton has adapted Sondheim’s work for the big screen, and the result is a beautiful nightmare of a film that will send Burton fans into ecstasies and may please fans of Sondheim’s work, but will likely be too peculiar for most others.
The story is one of revenge: many years ago, there was a barber, his wife, and their baby. A wicked judge was in love with the wife and had the barber sentenced and transported to Australia on a false charge. The judge ravished the wife, sending her mad, and adopted the infant as his ward. The barber manages to escape from the penal colony and returns to London as Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp, “Pirates of the Caribbean”), a man bent on vengeance. He returns to the site of his old barber shop, an upstairs room above a pie shop, to find it still owned by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”), who makes the worst meat pies in London. Mrs. Lovett has kept his set of razors, so Sweeney sets up shop again and schemes to get one of his beloved blades against the throat of the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, ” Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”).
The entire film is a goth wonderland, full of shades of black and gray. The characters are pale and wan, with crazed hair and deep circles under their eyes. This is the London of Dickens’ nightmares, a place of thick smoke and fog, and filthy streets filled with filthy people. The lovely period clothes are dirty and covered with questionable stains. When things go well, it is usually a prelude to something nasty.
Sweeney is driven to distraction by the difficulty of getting at the cunning judge and decides that everyone deserves to die, not just the wicked Turpin. But how to dispose of the bodies? Well, Mrs. Lovett observes, they could always bury them — but it seems like such a waste, especially with the price of meat what it is these days. The song that follows is a veritable orgy of black humor, as the pair consider the possible flavors of various individuals outside the shop. The entire film is filled with the darkest of humor — corpses falling through a trapdoor Sweeney rigs in pratfall poses that would be fatal if they weren’t already dead, Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop enjoying booming business as people discover how tasty the pies are, and so on.
Of course, this is a musical as well, which makes the darkness even more delightful. It also means that there must be romance, and not just the doomed fantasies Mrs. Lovett has of herself and Sweeney moving to the seaside and settling down. Evildoers must be punished, even if they are doing evil as a means to punish the wicked. Fortunately, there is Sweeney’s daughter Joanna (newcomer Jayne Wisener), now sixteen, and a young sailor named Anthony (newcomer Jamie Campbell Bower) to fill the role of young lovers struggling to live happily ever after.
“Sweeney Todd” is a dark delight, sure to please Burton’s fans and those fans of the Broadway show who are not purists (Burton cut a number of songs and set pieces, presumably for cinematic and length reasons). It is not recommended for those who find Burton’s style not to their liking — it’s becoming more stylized and distilled with every film the man makes. Those who find plot holes aggravating and have difficulty suspending their disbelief are also recommended to stay away. This is a musical, after all, and one in the hands of a man not renowned for his plotting skills. But those in search of a darkly comic nightmare will doubtless have a bloody good time.