SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

R

-By Ethan Alter


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No offense to Paul Thomas Anderson, but There Will Be Blood is a far more appropriate title for Tim Burton's highly anticipated big-screen version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The screen is awash in the sticky red stuff for much of the second half of this rousing movie musical, as we watch the title character (played by Johnny Depp) methodically slice open his customers' throats with his trusty silver razors before dumping their bodies through a trapdoor into the waiting clutches of his partner-in-crime, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who promptly grinds them into filling for her famous meat pies. But they're not cannibals, you see—she's simply a smart businesswoman who doesn't see the point of letting a fresh supply of red meat go to waste. Sweeney, meanwhile, is driven by far baser instincts: He just wants to kill people.

It's not hard to understand why when you've heard the poor guy's backstory; once upon a time, he was known as Benjamin Barker, a skilled London barber with a thriving business, a beautiful wife and a darling baby girl. Unfortunately for him, his bride Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) caught the eye of the powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who arranged to have Barker arrested and shipped off to Australia on false charges. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to England to discover that Turpin had his sport with Lucy in his absence, leading the distraught woman to poison herself. Worse still, this dark-hearted judge has kept their daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) prisoner in his home, with the intention of making her his bride. Vowing revenge, Barker adopts the name Sweeney Todd and reopens his Fleet Street establishment, located atop the widowed Mrs. Lovett's pie shop. Todd eventually lures Turpin into his barber chair, but is interrupted before he can carry out the deed. So until another opportunity to slay his nemesis presents itself, the now quite insane barber takes his bloodlust out on the unsuspecting Londoners who stop in for a quick trim and a shave.

Although it sounds closer to a horror movie, Sweeney Todd is, at heart, a pitch-black comedy. That's how Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury played it when they originated the roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, respectively, in the show's 1979 Broadway debut. (That production was captured on film in 1982—with George Hearn subbing for Cariou—and is considered by many Sondheim fans to be the definitive movie version of the musical.) Subsequent productions, including the acclaimed 2005 revival starring Patti LuPone, have downplayed the story's inherent absurdity, and the movie follows their lead. Burton's version of Sweeney Todd is essentially a revenge picture that happens to be set to music. That's not to say there aren't any laughs to be had here; it's virtually impossible to listen to songs like "A Little Priest" and "The Worst Pies in London" without cracking up. But aside from Sacha Baron Cohen, who has a scene-stealing supporting turn as a potential rival to Sweeney, the actors (and Burton himself) play the material straight. While this choice may disappoint those viewers who swear by the original Broadway production, the director has nevertheless created a consistent and compelling vision that succeeds on its own terms.

In translating the play to the screen, Burton has taken his cue from a line of dialogue that Sweeney delivers upon his return to London: "For in the once-familiar streets, I feel a chill of ghostly shadows everywhere." From the opening shot of Todd's ship pulling into the harbor, we are presented with a city that exists in a perpetual gloom. It's a place drained of color, of life, much like Sweeney himself, who, with his pallid skin and somber demeanor, resembles one of the "ghostly shadows" he describes, an idea that Depp mines for potent dramatic effect. (It's significant that the only trace of color we ever see on Sweeney's person is the blood of his victims.) Playing Todd as a phantom or walking corpse also gives the novice singer some leeway in navigating the vocal demands of the role. While he'd be wise not to accept the starring role in a Broadway show, his nasal, raspy voice fits this version of the character. Depp's high point comes during his duet on "Pretty Women" with Rickman—whose own solo number was sadly cut from the film—a beautifully acted and filmed rendition of one of the show's best numbers.

Bonham-Carter's performance, unfortunately, is more problematic. While it's appropriate for Sweeney to be played as a dour, humorless shell of a man, Mrs. Lovett needs to be bigger and brighter. Like her would-be lover, she's skirting the edge of sanity, but faces madness with a smile on her face. Bonham Carter's shaky singing voice doesn't help matters; although her duets with Depp are fine, she hurries through her solo numbers with little humor or sense of fun. The only song where she seems to be enjoying herself is "By the Sea," a hilarious fantasy sequence where Mrs. Lovett imagines herself and Todd living happily on the beach, far away from smoggy London.

Ultimately, the real star of Sweeney Todd is Burton himself. Ever since the back-to-back box-office failures of Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! a decade ago, he's been a director at war with himself, continually tempted to indulge his offbeat tendencies but not at the expense of reaching a mass audience. In movies like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and even Big Fish, that conflict led him to value spectacle over the deeply felt characterizations that defined the first part of his career. With its beautiful production design and swooping camera moves, Sweeney Todd certainly succeeds as spectacle, but for the first time in a long time, Burton is completely keyed into the human drama unfolding in front of him. In the director's extensive gallery of freaks, Sweeney Todd ranks alongside Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and, don't laugh, Batman Returns as one of his boldest, most accomplished achievements.



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