Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (8/10)

Tim Burton is one strange filmmaker, from tragic drama like Edward Scissorhands, to family-friendly yet wonderfully creepy films like The Nightmare Before Christmas. He’s always had a penchant for the Gothic, and in his latest outing, based on the Broadway play of the same name, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he returns to his roots with melodramatic and masterful bloody flair. Sweeney Todd is gleefully twisted vision, a film that really can’t be compared to much else, other than to say it’s something along the lines of the bastard child of the most song-happy musical you can think of…and Kill Bill. Only better. Much much better.

Opening with an ode to the despair and corruption-filled pits of London, sung with a gritty baritone by the thankfully-good singer Johnny Depp as the damned Sweeney Todd, we soon learn that Todd, a long long time ago known as Benjamin Barker, a barber, was exiled for fifteen years by a corrupt government official, who maligned him with a false charge so that he could take hold of his beautiful wife and child. Now Todd is back with revenge on his mind and a razor in his hand. He meets a young woman (insert name here), played by Helena Bonham Carter, who offers him her upstairs room with which he might carry out his vengeance, which, he soon decides, encompasses all who come into his shop, for they were all guilty, in one way or another of what happened to him and his wife.

Sweeny Todd is a deliciously gritty splatter fest. Filmed mostly in dark grays, blacks, and whites, you would think that it would remain a drab and unmoving picture, but this is not even close to being true, in part due the singing (which I’ll get to later), and also due to the buckets of blood that bleed onto the screen. It’s about the only thing in the film that really has any color, save for the hideously revealing blue suit that a rival barber wears (Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen with gleeful energy and an insanely bad French accent). It takes about half an hour for any blood to reach the screen, and by that point I was feel apprehensive. According to rumors and some news tidbits circulating around the internet a few months ago, the studio was pushing for a PG-13 rating for the flick, to which fans of the play screamed in outrage. After the obviously toned-down Beowulf, the terribly schizophrenic Fred Claus, and the seriously lacking in carnage Hitman, this didn’t bode well. And then Sweeney made his first kill, and as the fountain of blood shot up from that person’s neck, I knew that this had to have been planned to be R. I sighed in relief, and the movie only got better from there. Depp calls forth blood from necks like a master orchestra conductor summons the notes from a band, both a symphony of sound and emotion. As Depp and Carter sing, the razor sings as well, intertwining with the sadistic yet incredibly clever lyrics like it was a part of the song itself, and the blood that spurts into the air, splattering into Depp’s shirt and running down the victims’ necks.

The singing is another strong point, though not the strongest, sad to say, of the movie. The idea itself is masterfully pulled-off, with such disingenuous genres as a musical and a slasher, and the satirical and self-aware parody is note-perfect, yet surprisingly deeply serious and powerful. I have not seen the play, and, as with movies based on books or some other genre I won’t judge based on its source material, though from reviews and articles that I’ve read, there are considerably fewer show-stopping numbers in the film version. The film functions less as an obvious over-the-top musical and more as a serious kind of drama, and the musical numbers that do exist tend to take place between two people and function more as a conversation than something which exists solely to dazzle with its musical brilliance. I would have liked to see more grand numbers in the film, though – the only real one takes place once Todd decides to extend his quest for vengeance to the whole neighborhood –as he strolls through the streets in an imaginary sequence wherein he accosts all the businessmen and politicians that were inadvertently responsible for his wrongful imprisonment. It’s a dazzling piece of music, the highlight of the whole film, and if there had only been more of them the film would have been much more effective as a mutant mash-up of musicals and slashers. The singers in the fof ilm all sing very well, though this is obviously a first outing for Depp as a singer. He’s good, but he’s not spectacular. He is not bad in the least, just inexperienced, though for the first half of the movie it seems he’s holding himself back in some way. Thankfully, though, when he does finally unleash his vocal cords, the gritty baritone I mentioned earlier is a welcome addition to the picture. Carter’s twistedly soothing works much better, and Alan Rickman’s few snippets of song of course function beautifully.

Acting is the absolutely strongest part of the movie. Alan Rickman as the judge who wronged Todd made me shake my head in amazement. Rickman is an actor’s actor, relishing every single role he plays down to the slightest nod of the head and the smallest handshake. Bonham Carter reminded me of her role in this year’s Harry Potter, with a similar wacky hairdo and a positively insane personality. Timothy Spall, another Potter veteran, plays Rickman’s henchman, and it works, if being a bit unmemorable. Depp doesn’t quite measure up to Rickman in terms of sheer acting ability, but his portrayal of Sweeney is a fascinating one. The combination of a revenge-filled heart and a sheer lust for blood can be seen in Depp’s eyes every time he is onscreen. Sweeney’s as real as any character you’ve ever seen in a film, and one of the great things about Depp’s portrayal is that he makes some leaps of faith and logic believable just because he acts it well. A person in real life would never behave as Sweeney does, but Depp makes us believe that, faced with the tragic events of his life, he could.

Sweeney Todd ended up being everything I had hoped for, and it’s a film that I may even want to see a second time in theatres, and with the amount of films I see, that’s rare. It’s an odd little oddball of a movie, a gothic horror musical with great performances, fantastic production design, twistedly brutal murders, music to haunt, terrify, and amuse you, and a story that, at its core, is pretty fascinating. There’s little else like it in theatres this year, and with the cloning that Hollywood seems to have become so adept at performing, that’s saying something. Sure, it’s based on a musical, but who wouldn’t want to watch Johnny Depp slash throats on a Friday night? That’s what I thought.

Sweeney Todd is not for the weak of stomach. The murders are very brutal, and there’s plenty of blood to go around, but if you’re hungering for something that is so obviously and beautifully unique (in its own twisted and sick way), Sweeney Todd may be your thing. It worked for me, and I would call it most definitely worth ten dollars and twenty-five cents.


One Response to “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (8/10)”

  1. Breanna Witte Says:

    Sweeney Todd is a amazing movie
    If i could meet Johnny Depp in person it would be the happyest moment of my life

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