Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Film review by: Witney Seibold


            My girlfriend pointed out that Tim Burton, with each passing film, seems to be getting more comfortable in his skin. I agree with that, but in addition, I think that with every passing film, Hollywood and the public at large seem to be getting more comfortable with Tim Burton. Not only is he allowing his pop-Goth sensibility to roam freer and larger (teen Goths wear “The Nightmare Before Christmas” accoutrements nowadays), but he also seems to be more conducive to effective storytelling, and to operating grandly – remaining his iconoclastic self – within the Hollywood system. In short, he seems to be getting more skilled with each film.


            We are now presented with “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” handily Burton’s best film of the last decade, and one of the best films of the year. Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Grand Guignol musical, about a wrongly accused London man (with a wrongly raped and poisoned wife and wrongly kidnapped child) escaped from prison to seek revenge on the judge responsible (as well as pretty much anyone who gets in his way), seems like an unlikely subject for a musical, but, hey, there are musicals about stranger things (“Starlight Express,” anyone?), and no other musical meshes more perfectly with Burton’s signature style than something like “Sweeney Todd.” And Burton knows exactly how to deal with the musical: he let’s the musical do the talking. With such an imagination, Burton could have easily let the film get away from him with overwrought production design, buckets of blood, and Johnny Depp with wild hair—actually the film does have all of those things, but, to be sure, they all work perfectly. Burton let’s the music do the talking, and follows only closely behind with his own panache, making for a tidal wave of expressionistic, bloody carnage that is a gorgeous and gory delight.


            Depp plays Todd (Tod, the German word for death) as a cold-eyed, pasty-skinned ghoul, a wavy white shock of hair adding to his monstrousness. He hisses and sneers at humanity at large while he waves his shiny razors. And, here’s the thing, we sympathize with him. Todd is not at all a good man, but his motives are so pure, his villainy so perfect, we almost want him to kill as much as possible. Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, mistress of The Worst Pies in London. His revenge and her both call for one thing, and luckily, the solution can provide: human bodies. He kills people upstairs, she cooks ‘em up downstairs. There is a delightful number in which the two of them scout out the window, debating which occupation would taste the best. Ghoulish? Oh, indeed, my friend. Indeed. The blood is bright and copious, and the gore is certainly not shied away from. But this is not gore included to sicken the audience, but to scare them.


            Alan Rickman plays the judge, Timothy Spall his stooge. Sacha Baron Cohen plays a pompous snake oil salesman, and Ed Sanders plays his boy assistant.


            Each of the actors sings their own parts, and surprisingly well. Depp and Carter especially, have better voices than you’d expect, and Rickman, while one is not used to seeing him sing, takes to the material with equal aplomb. Sondheim always stated that he liked actors who sang, rather than singers who act, and luckily, Burton follows that mould as well. Despite a vapid subplot between Todd’s lost teenage daughter (Jayne Wisener) and a simpy student with the unfortunate handle of Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), the film is perfectly evil, and gorgeously assembled.

             Really. Go see it.

Published in: on January 12, 2008 at 2:30 am  Leave a Comment  

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