Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (*** 1/2)

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Tim Burton’s blood-soaked, deliciously macabre cinematic interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious, gory stage musical is a dark, visually astounding experience. It’s involving, grotesque, funny, heartbreaking, jaw-breaking and probably Burton’s most uncompromising artistic vision since Sleepy Hollow. He pulls no punches. Neither does Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber himself, in his sixth (!) collaboration with the director.

The film opens with ominous organ music and a fiendishly clever title sequence where drops of rain turn into drops of blood and a trail of blood flows through an animated London. The mix of over-the-top Gothic horror with tongue-in-cheek humor continues through the whole film. An obvious influence to Burton for Sweeney Todd seems to be the Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s, and it doesn’t shock me to learn that originally Christopher Lee was cast in a role in this film (Lee did end up in the finished film version of Sleepy Hollow, though, another Burton film that was a Hammer homage.) The production design by Dante Ferretti is astonishing, and in fact, the London of Sweeney Todd is almost a character itself.

Like Hamlet and Kill Bill, Sweeney Todd is a revenge story. Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) was an innocent, naive barber with a beautiful wife and a young daughter. The sinister, vile Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), with the help of his scheming, nasty henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), sends Barker away to prison for a crime he did not commit, has his way with his wife, drives her to madness and suicide and steals his daughter and raises her as his own, basically imprisoning her in his mansion. Flash forward 15 years, when Barker returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd, to get his revenge.

Though this is a musical (with some great songs, by the way), make no mistake, this is a violent, bloody motion picture. Though much of the credit to the film’s success goes, no doubt, to Burton, it must be said that the film would not work quite as well without Depp’s intensely focused, superb characterization of Todd/Barker. He is a man possessed by the idea of revenge, it not only drives him, but it consumes him. It’s another great performance by Depp, who also does a pretty good job with the songs. Helena Bonham Carter is well-cast as Mrs. Lovett, the well-meaning, slightly daffy owner of the meat pie shop right below Sweeney’s barber shop. Of course, the meat pies will play a part in the story…

Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin is a genuinely evil man, and Rickman plays the part with relish. Timothy Spall, who has been playing a lot of filthy, disgusting creatures lately (just look at his work in the Harry Potter films), has great fun with his role as Bamford. His facial expressions help sell the character. Sacha Baron Cohen has a small but crucial role as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, and has some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are fine as the film’s romantic straight leads, even though their job pretty much is to provide a small silver lining to this dark tale of woe. Ed Sanders plays the young Toby, who works for Signor Adolfo Pirelli, and also is given some great lines. Laura Michelle Kelly portrays Barker’s wife in flashbacks.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is gripping in the way few movie musicals are allowed to be. As I said earlier, it’s uncompromising in its vision, all the way to the end. And the reunion of Depp and Burton is cause for celebration.

Note: The IMDB page for this film gives away a few surprises, so I’d stay away from it until after you’ve seen the movie.

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