The reviews for “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” are more revealing than they look. One of the blurbs on the new DVD comes from a New York Times review by A.O. Scott: “A work of extreme genius.” “Extreme” is probably the operative term here. Everything in “Sweeney Todd” is over-the-top and proudly flamboyant, kind of like a dramatic circus. The source material, Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, is also dark, gruesome and, yes, even shocking. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s about a demon barber, for heaven’s sake.
The songs are wonderful, by the way. They’re also crucial to what makes the film work. Every song is either plot-driven or a character setup – not one sounds as if it’s out of place. (It’s hard to write songs about gore and murder seriously, but it’s not impossible.) Director Tim Burton (this is his 17th film) captures their passion and spectacle carefully, so the music guides the story without rising above it. Burton’s always been a man with craftiness and skill, but this time, Sondheim’s material speaks for itself.
It takes place in 19th century London – Johnny Depp plays a troubled barber with a sad story. Years ago, he was falsely arrested and locked up in Australia by the odious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). The judge takes his wife and daughter and makes them his own, eventually dropping the wife and keeping the daughter (Jayne Wisner).
The barber strikes back. He escapes and stalks back to London using an alias – Sweeney Todd. He returns to his miserable barbershop, which looks like something out of a cartoon Charles Addams might’ve conceived with Johann Vermeer. The lady downstairs, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), is famous for making the worst pies in London. (Even she thinks so.) She tells him what’s happened since he’s been gone: The judge keeps his daughter locked up in her room and, worst of all, his wife poisoned herself years ago. So now there’s only one thing left to do…he wants revenge.
It’s a lot more complicated than it sounds, though. You’ve heard about the violence already, but be forewarned – this is the most violent musical you’ll ever see. That’s mostly because of Mrs. Lovett’s pies, which contain a deadly secret ingredient.
Then there are the accents. Depp speaks with a vetty British accent that’s rehearsed and almost musical. (There’s a scene where Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Signor Adolfo Pirelli, talks with a genuine accent that sounds very strange against Depp’s false one.)
“Sweeney Todd” is filled with great performances, but it all comes down to Depp and Rickman. All of their scenes are wonderful, especially when their paths coincide. They don’t always get what they want, but by the end of the film, they get what they deserve.
Simply put, “Sweeney Todd” is a musical masterpiece thanks in part to the work of Stephen Sondheim. Because of this, regardless of who directed it, the film would have been enjoyable. However, Tim Burton was the perfect choice, as the ambiance and atmosphere he has created here is tailor-made for this movie. It’s like seeing the world in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” come to life.
The casting is also solid, despite Depp’s long locks garnering favor over a huge and imposing figure the likes of Ron Perlman, who is a solid vocalist as well and would have been a better choice. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles in Hollywood sometimes.
In spite of that, Depp is enjoyably charismatic and demonic as well is Bonham-Carter, who when combined with a star-studded and up and coming cast, make it one of the best musicals ever released in theaters and on DVD.
-Patrick Hickey Jr.