Sweeny Todd: The Demon of Barber Street
Reviewed by: Dr. “Doc” McPhearson
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by John Logan (based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical)
HOW ABOUT A SHAVE?
Having just arrived back home from the opening day matinee showing of Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”, there’s only one thing I am sure of: It’s bloody great.
The story behind the Sweeney Todd myth sparked in the 1800s, when a urban legend, about a demonic barber screaming for blood, spread through London like wildfire, reaching the ears of the masses by, more or less, word-of-mouth. It wasn’t long after its conception that many newspapers began publishing chapters of the Todd-tale in their “penny dreadfuls” (small newspapers that cost only a penny, and worked like multiple installments for a novel… oh never mind).
Speed ahead a hundred years, and Christopher Bond has adapted the legend into a stage play, mixing a complex revenge plot into the madness. Move ahead to the 1970s, a young talented musician named Stephen Sondheim, at the peak of his power, sees Bond’s play, and thinks to himself, “This would make a good musical.”
And apparently, it does. Winning what was at that time an unprecedented amount of Tony awards, Sondheim’s musical was so phenomenal that the very thought of it stuck with film director Tim Burton, up until last year, when he and his production team set about making this thing, which, hundreds of years after the initial plot’s creation, is one of the best films of 2007.
Quick stage setting: Benjamin Barker is a barber in London, where he lives with his beautiful wife Lucy and their baby daughter Johanna. However, unbeknownst to him, a corrupt judge by the name of Turpin watches them from afar, concocting a plan that will send Benjamin away and leave his wife ripe for the taking. And with the help of lawman Beadle Bamford, he does just that, imprisoning poor Barker on false charges, and exiling him to Australia for life. But fifteen years later, Anthony Hope, a young sailor, finds Barker, recently escaped from prison, adrift on a plank in the middle of the ocean. Bound for London anyway, Anthony is more than willing to transport the awry fellow there as well.
In fact, that’s where the film begins, with the ship drifting into the London harbor. But, much like the dirty, dingy, drearily dark streets of the city, Barker’s life in general has forever transformed in his absence; his whole world has become, for lack of a better phrase, jacked up. Turpin raped Lucy, after which she poisoned herself, leaving little Johanna with no option but to fall under the adoptive care of the evil judge himself. Yep, things are in the crapper for poor ol’ Benji Boy. So what does he do? He kills a bunch of people, is what he does! You think I’m joking? Well, I’m not. By the end, the body count is high, and half of the cast is ka-poot.
Oh, and while speaking of the cast, I should say, it could not have been better. Johnny Depp works wonderfully as the brooding vengeful anti-hero, using his skills as an actor to help show emotion even while hittin’ the notes with surprisingly substantial ease. Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett so that you don’t know what is going on in her character’s head, making her that much more ambiguously brilliant as a character. Alan Rickman is completely dry (I mean that as a compliment) as the wicked Judge Turpin, and, with Depp at his side, performs “Pretty Women”, one of the most darkly ironic duets I have ever seen put on film. Timothy Spall as Bamford is phenomenally slimy and conniving, and also one of the best bits of casting in this film. Sacha Baron Cohen is absolutely hilarious as the crafty, but ultimately doomed, rival barber Senor Pirelli; the moment he appeared on the screen, people were already laughing. And the younger actors (Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, and Ed Sanders) all three make great debuts in this film, though some critics have shrugged off their characters as mere plot devices.
But it isn’t just the actors whose works shines through this dark, dark piece of work; Dante Ferretti’s production design, spliced into the same pie with Colleen Atwood’s costumes and make-up devices, blend the movie’s world with such Burtonistic (copyright 2007 Doc McPhearson) qualities, that, especially in moments like the “By the Sea” daydream, each one of them is destined for Oscar nomination no doubt.
Okay, I have to stop now. Seriously. No matter what I say, I feel as if I’m leaving something out. Look, if you take nothing else from this review, take this: strongly consider seeing this film. It is a fantastic adaptation of a even more fantastic Broadway musical. Please, understand, that while it will not be Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury singing these songs, the movie does the material justice in terms of both the actors, technicals, and screenwriting that could have been done, I believe. True, it shaved off several things here and there, most noticeably the entirety of the chorus lines. But with Burton behind the camera, Depp in front of it, and Sondheim’s fingerprints on every gorgeously gothic frame, you could not ask for a more perfect team in this violent, but oh so intimate, picture.
10 out of 10
DISCLAIMER: I don’t think I mentioned, there’s a lot of blood in this movie. Like, a lot a lot. However, it is absolutely unrealistic, used as almost a romanticized quality, adding to the melodramatic film of the material. But still, please, don’t take any children to this thing. The therapist’s bill will eat you out of house and home.
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