Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Out today (********8/10)

Johnny Depp is amazing. On paper, some ideas seem idiotic. Edward Scissorhands. So...there’s a guy who has scissors, where his hands should be. And...he loves a girl, and clips some hedges. Sound good? Or as moronic as Pirates of the Caribbean. We’d like to make a movie out of a Disney theme park ride. After all, you can only do so many remakes of movies and TV shows, right? And Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. So, there’s this barber, who murders people. Violently, with lots of blood and gore. Oh, and he will sing first. And it will star Johnny Depp. What? But Depp has proved that he can turn even the most half-baked bad idea into something great if he has something to work with. And that something, in Sweeney Todd, is Tim Burton. Ever since the two collaborated on Edward Scissorhands, they have been the greatest actor-director tandem of the past two decades. The Scorcese-DeNiro team of the new millenium.

Sweeny Todd is not their best film together. (That would be Ed Wood.) By the way, did anyone out there know that Tim Burton directed "Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure"? Watch it again. Knowing that now, it’s easy to see. OK. I’m endorsing Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. On with the Sweeney Todd review. This movie is dark. But then, it’s Burton. The sets that represent London at it’s grimiest and most malevolent could have been lifted from The Corpse Bride or even Batman. And they are strikingly bleak and gothic, as is Depp himself. His Sweeney Todd is as bizarre looking a character as there is in a movie. So too is Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the woman who helps Depp murder dozens of London residents. Speaking of Carter - the cast of Sweeney Todd, apart from Depp and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is almost entirely taken from the Harry Potter movies. Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall...my familiarity with them as Harry Potter regulars gave an even creepier edge to this film.

And Sweeney Todd is certainly creepy. Based on the gigantic hit Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, it’s the story of a barber named Benjamin Barker whose wife is taken from him by an evil judge. The judge then throws this barber into prison and makes off with his wife and daughter. Benjamin Barker, released from prison, makes his way back to London where he has now re-invented himself as Sweeney Todd, a maniacal killer who will stop at nothing to avenge his family. Helena Bonham Carter is Mrs. Lovett, a baker who makes the worst meat pies in all of London. She tells Todd about the fate of his family, and helps him plan his murderous revenge. However, that revenge is, to borrow another movie phrase, a dish best served cold. Sweeney Todd will have to bide his time before he can have his satisfaction. But his murderous psyche can’t be contained, and before long he is killing just about anybody. Anyone who sits down in his barber chair who won’t be missed gets the ol’ slice and dice from the straight razor.

The slaughter of these people is absolutely brutal and bloody in a horror movie sort of way. And if Sweeney Todd were not a musical, and this murder was taking place without the singing, it just wouldn’t work. But for some reason, here it does. As a by-product of these killings and the mounting bodies, Carter, in her meat pie downstairs, discovers a terrific way to kill two birds with one stone. The delightful idea that she can both find a way to dispose of the bodies AND stop buying meat to make her pies at the same time. Everybody wins! In an interesting sub-plot, we learn that Todd’s daughter is being held prisoner by the evil judge in London’s version of Rapunzel’s tower. The young man who helped Todd return to London is in love with her, and they conspire to break her out and run off together. There is also a creepy old woman who keeps showing up and cackling. Perhaps the best supporting turn in the film comes courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat himself, who plays a rival barber and quite the sinister character himself. His demise, while untimely, is perhaps deserved and certainly unpleasant. But in a weird way, kind of funny.

When watching Sweeney Todd, one is constantly aware that it is a Broadway musical. But that is not a bad thing. The songs are terrific, the staging is precise and fantastic, and the movement of the characters in the individual scenes is magnificent. The main reason this works is that there is what seems to be an intentional disconnect between the audience and the subject matter. We can’t really identify with any of the characters, but we are not really supposed to. Just like watching a musical on the stage, where the singing itself creates that separation, so too does the movie keep us at arm’s length. Which is ideal. We don’t want to become too invested in these characters. With whom would we side? With Depp, who is murdering dozens of innocents, with Carter, who is serving them as pies to other innocents, with Rickman, who is evil and malicious as the judge? The only characters who are in the least sympathetic in the film are Todd’s daughter and her would-be lover. And in the violent, bloody climax, they are the lone gleam of hope for happiness in the entire film. But Sweeney Todd is not supposed to be a happy movie. It is supposed to be a good movie. And it certainly is that.


  1. Glad to hear you liked this film! It's now among my favourites. I picked up the soundtrack a few weeks ago and have been listening to it over and over ever since. The lyrics are brilliant. ("Try the Priest" is one of the most delightful, best-written and hilarious tunes ever..."Haven't you got Poet or something like that?" "No, you see, the trouble with poet is how do you know it's deceased? Try the Priest.") And who knew Johnny Depp would be able to pull off a singing role so well! The similarities with Corpse Bride are a little unsettling at times. Same actors, same dark look. Depp and Carter even have the same pale, deathly appearance as their animated counterparts.

    And the story is much more complex than it seems on the surface. Sweeney Todd is not just a murderous barber. He's a man who's been wronged, and just barely keeping it together. When his murder of the judge is foiled, he snaps and goes on a rampage.

    Gory yes, but I think the worst thing for me to watch was all those bodies hitting the furnace-room floor head-first. *shudder*

  2. Hey....did you know that Soylent Green is people?