Tim Burton delivers his best film yet with the powerful Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. While cinema has seen some decent musicals in the past few years, this one takes the title of best in the bunch.
Johnny Depp stars as Benjamin Barker, a banished barber seeking revenge, reborn as the bloodthirsty Sweeney Todd. Barker’s daughter and wife were taken away from him by a deranged judge (Alan Rickman), and the villain sent him to prison in Australia. Upon his escape, Barker (looking a little worse for wear, with a white streak blasting through his jet black hair and a maxi-pale complexion) returns to London to reopen shop.
Dwelling beneath the shop is Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), maker of the worst meat pies in London and admirer of Sweeney Todd. When Sweeney takes to slashing the necks of his patrons, Mrs. Lovett suggests they not waste the corpses. Soon, she’s making the best meat pies in London courtesy of Sweeney’s death chair. Mind you, this is an appropriately R-rated film. When Sweeney’s blade meets jugular, the geysers of blood are quite remarkable, followed by bodies violently slipping through a hole in the floor and smashing onto pavement below.
Don’t let the previews fool you because this is a full-blown Stephen Sondheim musical. Much of the dialogue is delivered via song, often in the “talky singing” mode. Highlights include Bonham Carter’s delivery of the song “The Worst Pies In London,” where Burton finds morbid delight in Mrs. Lovett’s roach-infested kitchen. “Johanna (Reprise)” amounts to the film’s greatest moment, when Sweeney dispatches of many a victim while singing a majestic ode to Johanna (Jayne Wisener making an impressive debut), his long lost daughter. The number, the score’s best track, is shared by Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), Johanna’s clueless suitor.
Depp takes the role of Sweeney Todd and makes it his own. Boasting a strong singing voice, a classic scowl, and searing eyes, Depp honestly has never been better. He should be a lock for an Oscar nomination, and while his competition is strong this year, he’s a serious contender. Depp and Burton are proving to be an actor/director combo right up there with the likes of Scorsese and De Niro.
Bonham Carter, Burton’s real-life girlfriend, proves that nepotism can be a good thing. She is the perfect choice for Mrs. Lovett, her look and sound befitting of the role. She should also get some Oscar consideration, and I wish there was a way to get both Depp and Bonham Carter to perform their numbers live onstage. Pay them millions to do a Broadway revival. I’d rather see that than Young Frankenstein. I heard that really sucks.
Burton approaches the look of the film the way you’d expect him to, with lots of gray and blue, and plenty of moonlight. The movie’s look is similar to past Burton efforts (especially Sleepy Hollow) and it’s wholly appropriate. He stages an escape from the sinister darkness with a hilarious fantasy sequence set to “By the Sea” (sung by Bonham Carter), where Burton sets the action in colorful daylight with a frowning, disenchanted Sweeney.
Rickman does nicely with his supporting role, playing a hateful character with small hints of humanity trying to burst out. Wisener has a sweet voice to go with her Christina Ricci-like looks. Sacha Baron Cohen scores big laughs in the small role of Signor Adolfo Pirelli, Sweeney’s barber competition and first victim. Timothy Spall remains hard to look at, appropriate for his role as the snaky Beadle Bamford, and young Ed Sanders (who looks like a miniature, brown haired Sting) totally shines as Toby, the apprentice who makes a startling discovery in Mrs. Lovett’s basement.
Yes, the holidays are usually a time for sunny, happy films and, if they’re musicals, they are often more joyous than this one. Fine by me. Burton’s macabre musical is now the high watermark for modern excursions into the genre.