Judge Clark Douglas invites you to come in for a shave.
Our reviews of Sweeney Todd In Concert (published May 12th, 2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (published May 3rd, 2004), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street: 2-Disc Special Edition (published April 1st, 2008) are also available.
Never forget. Never forgive.
"I can guarantee the closest shave you'll ever know."
Facts of the Case
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is based on a very popular (and much-acclaimed) musical by composer Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim's story is one of much darkness and violence, full of unsavory characters on dark missions. His protagonist is Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands), a London man whose life was ruined when the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, Die Hard) had him thrown in prison and stole his wife. We only see the happy young Barker in a fleeting flashback; we will be spending all of our time with Barker's new version of himself…a vengeant barber going by the name of "Sweeney Todd." When you see Sweeney for the first time, a bizarre white streak through his black hair, a look of unforgiving anger on his face, you realize that this is a man who is immune to the pleasures or temptations of a happy life. The only thing that will satisfy Sweeney Todd is blood, and that's exactly what he is going to get. Gallons and gallons of it.
Sweeney Todd's agenda quickly grows larger than merely taking out Judge Turpin. No, there's far too much anger and bitterness for one death to cool his rage. Sweeney Todd determines to punish all of society, and he carries out his nihilistic vision with the creative assistance of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, Howards End). She is not an angry soul like Sweeney, rather, she's simply a struggling businesswoman. She currently makes the very worst meat pies in London…after all, just how good can alley cats taste? Some fresh meat is precisely what she needs, and Sweeney provides it on a regular basis. They set up a fiendishly effective system that is probably better seen than described.
Adaptations of Charles Dickens novels don't show up in the cinema very often these days. Likewise, filmed interpretations of the works of William Shakespeare seem to be slowly but surely dying out, as the "Shakespeare Renaissance" of the 1990's has come to a close. If these two facts make you sad, take heart, my friend. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the best Dickens or Shakespeare film of the past few years. That's particularly remarkable when you consider than neither Dickens nor Shakespeare had anything to do with this story.
Johnny Depp has been collaborating with Tim Burton for quite a long time now (this is their sixth collaboration), and this is quite possibly his strongest performance yet for the director. While I've heard that many stage actors perform the role with grandiose bellowing and noisy gusto, Depp plays the part with considerable subtlety. He seeks to chill the soul rather than blatantly startle it, and the image of Sweeney Todd's furious eyes staring into a cruel inferno is one that will stick with me for some time. Helena Bonham Carter could have easily played her role with spiteful ugliness, but instead she provides a certain romantic element to the part. Mrs. Lovett has somehow deluded herself into the idea that someday she and Sweeney will be able to retire to a nice home on the seaside. There is simply no way that such a happy ending will be possible, and we all know it, but the fact that Mrs. Lovett does not makes her just a little bit tragic. Well, until she returns to serving freshly baked meat pies, anyway.
You may have noticed that I haven't discussed the music yet, which is odd considering that this is a musical. That's because it doesn't feel like one, despite the fact that someone is singing 90% of the time. Burton's genius as a director is the way he stages all the musical numbers. He does not provide standalone set pieces for each of the numbers, he never pauses the story to indulge the performance of a knockout tune. Everything flows organically from ordinary dialogue to sung dialogue to soaring lyrics. The musical numbers do not feel like individual nuggets, but rather like an integral part of Burton's blood-soaked fabric. Depp and Carter are both quite good, performing their tunes with a natural, almost conversational tone. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) has a funny little tune as a competing barber, and Alan Rickman's voice seems tailor-made to perform in accompaniment to Sondheim's mathematical, clipped arrangements.
The film is fascinating to look at from start to finish. This is partially due to the cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, who portrays everything in varying shades of black and gray. Only the soaring streams of ripe red blood light up the screen, offering evidence that the only notable life around these parts is death. Dante Ferreti's production design is both colorful and accurate, successfully evoking the feel of the period while adding theatrical touches to it.
The film is blessed with a very solid hi-def transfer, though I do concur with Chief Justice Michael Stailey that this is not a film to be viewed during daylight hours. It's very dark film visually, and though blacks are deep and rich, you really need to view this movie in a pitch-black room. The movie plays best late at night, anyway. The True HD audio is rich and booming. The opening title sequence with that rich organ music sent chills up my spine. All of the elements are well-balanced here, and the musical numbers sound just terrific. Extras are ported over from the 2-Disc DVD release, and thankfully over 50% of them are presented in HD. "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd" and "The Making of Sweeney Todd" are your standard-issue making-of pieces, though the former seems considerably more substantial and less EPK than the latter. Bits of theatrical and historical background are given in "Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition," "Sweeney Todd is Alive: The History of the Demon Barber," "Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd," and "Sweeney's London." These provide information that gives the viewer a better idea of where all the inspiration for the film came from, both directly and indirectly.
Production work is covered in "Designs for a Demon Barber" and "A Bloody Business," which examine set design, costume design, prosthetics, and special effects. Other odds and ends: twenty minutes of press conference footage, Depp and Burton interviewing each other for "Moviefone Unscripted," a photo montage set to music, a photo gallery, and a theatrical trailer. My only real disappointment with the supplements is that there isn't more discussion of the music, which is a bit odd for a musical. Also, we hear precious little from smaller cast members such as Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Timothy Spall. The interviews are limited to a pretty narrow range of major participants. Otherwise, this is a very engaging batch.
Why do I love this movie so much? These are most unsavory characters, and certainly an unsavory story. Despite this, I found myself grinning from ear to ear on numerous occasions. There is a joyous love of cinema on vivid display here. The feelings that Sweeney Todd generated in me were quite similar to the feeling I got from Perfume, another story of a murderer set in a grimy world of despair. I have intense admiration for the balancing act Burton has done with this story. He manages to make the very high level of violence bearable by presenting it on such a wildly theatrical scale, but he never winks at us or suggests that we should not take this story seriously. As the plot of Sweeney Todd plunges into the very depths of the macabre, Burton, Depp, and Bonham-Carter plunge right along with it, matching it beat for beat with inspired work.
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