Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
While there may be no tale of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo, there is no love story more grisly, ghastly and gorgeous than that of Benjamin Barker and his Lucy. Tim Burton, after a detour through tales of children's adventures in candy-coated worlds and planets of primates, makes a beautiful return to the lands of the gothic live action film with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. His return is loud, bombastic, strewn with bodies, soaked in blood, and heralded in song. It is movie magic at its finest.
Sweeney Todd tells a story of love, lust, and revenge, of barbarism and barbering. A ship sails into London harbor, carrying a raven haired, pale skinned Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), weathered and darkened by the world and his past. Sweeney tells a tale of a young barber who is torn from his loving spouse and infant daughter when a horrible covetous judge sends him to prison on false charges. This tale is the veiled story of Sweeney’s own past, the tragedy his own. Upon returning to his old shop, Sweeney makes friends with the kindly widow, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), who owns the failing pie shop below, and together, the betrayed barber and the enterprising baker plan revenge upon the judge, setting into motion the cruel machinations to see him to a grisly end.
Johnny Depp is a familiar face to any movie-goer nowadays, but as Sweeney Todd he gives a performance that is bold and striking. We see not a hint the impish, other-worldly Willy Wonka, nor of the swaggering Jack Sparrow. Depp's Todd is cold and single-minded, a methodical man who is at his most relaxed with a glistening silver-handled razor in each hand. He may be driven by the love of his lost family, but he has shut off his heart from those feelings, as seen by his total and utter indifference to the fawning of Mrs. Lovett. The most important factor, however, is his voice. For a man whose singing talents were untested and of an unknown quality, Depp croons at a delicious tone, smooth and velvety but with an underlying growl that suits this maddened character perfectly.
Helena Bonham Carter's performance as Mrs. Lovett is also stellar, and it is by the grace of her own acting skill that she doesn't steal the show. (Her singing, however, greatly outclasses Depp's. Her voice is ethereal at times, adding a beautiful, almost other-worldly feeling to her songs). From her soft, warm eyes when she gazes upon Todd, to the simple touches and light caresses, Carter's performance speaks subtle volumes to what her character feels towards Todd. All of it, from the wry sense of humor to the dissarray of her appearence (and her kitchen), combines to form a lovely, singular woman who seems to be straight out of a strangely endearing Edward Gorey drawing.
The rest of the cast turns in equally great performances, from established greats Alan Rickman (the dishonorable Judge Turpin) and Sacha Baron Cohen (the showman-barber Pirelli), to newcomers Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener. Ed Sanders, as the young Toby, is of particular note. He manages that rare feat, a young child who manages to be endearing and yet not sickeningly cutesy. His voice and attitude in the song "Not While I'm Around" is utterly heartbreaking. It is hard to find fault in any of the supporting actors.
While the cast is fantastic, they can only do so much with what material they are given. Luckily, the material is excellent. Bombastic scenes, with Todd wielding his silver razor in hand and exclaiming, "At last, my arm is complete again" do not ring false or overly dramatic. The patter of Toby's sales pitch for Pirelli's magical elixir is both charming and amusing, especially when Todd and Lovett begin to pick apart at the truth of the claims for this supposed miracle hair growth serum. Then there is the breadth of the plot, with its tragic tales of lost love, women imprisoned, and ghastly murder. It's a masterfully constructed script; the pacing is perfect and the characters well developed.
The frosting on the cake, then, is Burton's visual style. Sweeney Todd isn't merely wonderfully acted, wonderfully written and wonderfully sung, it is a veritable feast for the eyes, a canvas spread with careful and exacting choices by a master artist. The colors are stark, often almost a sepia-toned call back to the silent horror films of yore. This makes any presence of bright colors incredibly striking, and Burton uses this to particular effect every time Todd viciously slits a throat. The blood is not the thick, dark stuff of realistic gore, but bright red, sputtering and spewing like fountains of crimson. Another perfect example is the sequence of Todd and Lovett sitting out at a picnic, their own drab and dark appearance a stark contrast with the colors of grass and sky. This sets the stage for a wondrous dream sequence, howlingly funny as we see Mrs. Lovett's never-to-be-realized hopes for a happy, normal family life with Todd. Finally, if somewhat fittingly, there is the final shot of the film. The details, I shall remain hazy about for the sake of not spoiling the plot, but I will say that it is a masterful shot, painterly in its composition of framing, detail, and color.
There is much that can be said about Sweeney Todd, but for now this humble reviewer will merely encourage you to stop reading about it, and go experience the film for yourself. A mad serial killer, a helpful, adoring woman, a vile judge, and a barber's chair - all elements that combine to form much more than this simple review can encapsulate. It is masterful cinema, art and entertainment, vision and sound combined for a truly riveting experience.