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 V.16 No.52 | December 27 - January 2, 2008 

Film Review

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

What’s black and white and red all over?

But does it beat the new Schick Quattro Titanium Razor?
But does it beat the new Schick Quattro Titanium Razor?

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Directed by Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman

From the word go, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street sounds like a match made in Heaven. Tim Burton directing Johnny Depp (for the sixth time!) in an adaptation of the famously grisly musical about a Victorian-era serial killer, complete with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim? Where do we start lining up?

Early Internet buzzers sniffed at the choice of Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter, as Depp’s costar and wondered idly if our boy Johnny was up to snuff in the singing department. Happily, both concerns are misplaced. Carter does fantastic work and makes an ideal on-screen match for Depp. Depp, meanwhile, gives it his all, growling menacingly through his many blackly comic numbers and generating a curious sympathy for his kill-crazy haircutter.

This new version, scribed by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator), dials down the humor of Sondheim’s stage version and amps up the grim atmosphere. Depp is our titular tonsorial tenor. (Actually, I have no idea if Depp’s a tenor, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration.) Fifteen years after a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) stole his wife away and sent him to prison for a crime he did not commit, Todd returns to London Town bent on bloody revenge. Taking residence in the garret above Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop, Todd opens a barber shop, sharpens his razors, sings a few songs and waits for some throats to slit.

In Mrs. Lovett (Carter), Todd finds a kindred misanthrope. Seems Mrs. Lovett’s pies are missing a few key ingredients, and Todd’s unfortunate victims (which need disposing of anyway) are the perfect meaty filling. ... Murder and cannibalism, now that’s my kind of Broadway!

Sweeney Todd doesn’t contain as many instantly hummable tunes as Sondheim’s earlier works (West Side Story, Gypsy), but there are still a few standouts. Depp goes for broke on “My Friends” (a touching romantic ballad dedicated to razor blades), while his spirited duet with Carter on “A Little Priest” shows that not all of Sondheim’s black humor has been excised. The lack of showstopping numbers is less detrimental on film than it is on stage, it would seem. Burton highlights this fact, composing his film in a much less stagebound manner than most musicals. The songs aren’t presented as elaborate production numbers (no dancing here), but as simple conversational asides (requiring less classically trained vocalists to boot). Fans of the original might miss the popular intro/outro “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” but excising the postmortem choral number makes sense with Burton’s more realistic staging.

Even with the more cinematic blocking, Burton manages to weave in several bravura sequences. His staging of “By the Sea,” for example, is a hoot with Mrs. Lovett imagining her entire romantic future alongside Mr. Todd, who remains hilariously morose even in milady’s perfect fantasy world.

Since it’s a Tim Burton film, there’s really no sense in pointing out that the whole affair is a visual marvel. The mostly monochromatic cinematography leeches nearly all color from the grimy London streets, leaving only a couple flashbacks and at least one character (Sacha Baron Coen’s colorful rival barber, Signor Pirelli) to revel in the rainbow hues.

A few nice tunes, multiple gallons of fake blood and a gorgeously grim production design add up to one lovely little tragedy. Sweeney Todd will have you tapping your toes and covering your eyes--often both at the same time. Pirate-poster-collecting fans of Depp and genteel musical theatre lovers might find themselves shocked by the film’s gloomy atmosphere and blood-spewing shenanigans. (Honestly, this looks more like a GWAR concert than a trip to your local light opera society, folks.) By the same token, there’s no doubt Sweeney Todd will be essential viewing for fans of all things luridly Gothic.


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