Directed by Tim Burton
The first time we see the barber formerly known as Benjamin Barker, he’s just returned to London after being exiled, sporting a wild mane of streaked black hair that makes Johnny Depp look like Dave Vanian of The Damned. To say he’s bitter about what happened is an understatement as he’s filled to the brim with hatred and bile towards the judge responsible for stealing his wife. Hungry from his travels, the newly dubbed “Sweeney Todd” stumbles into the decrepit bakery of one Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) where business is non-existent due to her legendary inedible meat pies. They become fast friends after he tells her his sad tale and she reveals that his wife killed herself rather than remain with the judge, and together, they plot Sweeney’s revenge, not knowing to what depths it will lead them.
There are many levels to this ghoulish tale of revenge set during England’s darkest times, but it may be one of the first productions of the musical where the title character isn’t upstaged by his partner in crime Mrs. Lovett, which has often been the case ever since the latter was portrayed by Angela Lansbury on Broadway and subsequently on television. That’s not to say Burton’s wife, actress Helena Bonham-Carter, doesn’t bring the same level of sly humor and skullduggery to her younger version of Todd’s dewey-eyed companion in driving the barber into his murderous frenzy, but the movie clearly belongs to Depp, as he brings new life to the character by creating an amalgam of many of his previous roles. There’s a little bit of Edward Scissorhands in there as well as “Sleepy Hollow”‘s Ichabod Crane, Abberline in “From Hell”, and even some Captain Jack, though that may just be due to Depp’s limited British accent. While it isn’t an enormous departure for Depp, it’s unquestionably his most passionate and emotionally rounded performance, playing grief-stricken barber one moment and a murderous madman the next, and you can experience every ounce of pain and madness through the eyes of a character that makes a memorable addition to Depp’s repertoire.
Visually, “Sweeney Todd” is one of Burton’s most striking films to date, a stunning achievement in production design in creating Burton’s dark vision of Victorian London from Mrs. Lovett’s bug-infested bakery to grimy streets right out of Dickens, as Burton’s camera swoops across the rooftops of the city. The gothic tone of the film is embellished by the limited palette of grey tones, countered by vivid colors in the flashback sequences, which isn’t an altogether original idea a similar process was used for “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera” but it clearly shows Burton to be at his peak as a visual stylist.
This is even more apparent when Sweeny Todd’s shiny razor finally finds its mark and bright red cartoon blood splatters and squirts out of the neck wounds in all directions, something that’s quite jarring the first time it happens, but even more when the barber rigs up a trap door that sends his victims’ bodies crashing to the basement floor below with a crunch and a splat. It’s pretty obvious that Burton is having as much fun killing people as the mad barber himself.
While Mrs. Lovett provides most of the humor, there’s a more obvious comic turn from Sacha Baron Cohen who briefly shows up as a competitive Italian barber who becomes Todd’s first victim, but even more impressive are the trio of newcomers Ed Sanders, Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisenere all three of them whom really can sing compared to the more seasoned actors who perform emotional semi-sung renditions of their tunes.
In a movie where the heroes cut throats and coo their victims into meat pies, the bad guys have to be truly despicable and no one does that better than Alan Rickman as the lecherous judge who steals the barber’s wife then raises his daughter to the ripe age where he can have her as well. Playing the judge’s henchman and enforcer Beadle Bamford, Tim Spall (Peter Pettigrew from the “Harry Potter” movies) looks like something right out of those English cartoons from the time period, an irredeemable character who deserves the worst possible demise. While it’s inevitable that both will get their due, at least Rickman brings a surprising amount of empathy to the judge in two amazing barber chair duets with Depp where we see that his desire for beautiful women only makes him more human. These are two of the film’s most suspenseful scenes as Todd gives the judge a close shave and we wait with baited breath for his sharp blade to plunge into the meat of the judge’s throat.
Despite the added suspense and gore, Burton never forgets that this is a well-loved musical and each of Sondheim’s numbers gets a respectful performance with gorgeous orchestral arrangements that do Sondheim proud, even if they’re not likely to win over anyone who hates musicals. Even so, the film follows the musical’s tragic ending but with such a breath-takingly bloody finale that few will be disappointed if they aren’t familiar enough with the musical to know the inevitable outcome.
The Bottom Line: