Coincidentally, Tim Burton’s grim, macabre musical tragedy ties in with an important moment in my life; “Sweeney Todd” was the first review I ever wrote. I can’t seem to recover this piece of my early teenhood, but I’m happy to say I’ve grown enormously as a critic since my gawky adolescence, and while I have a long way to go, well… who doesn’t? It’s been a rewarding and worthy journey, albeit with many frustrating pitfalls along the way.
Anyway, what can I say? I love “Sweeney.” Always have. I know it isn’t the most popular film with the critics, but I think of it as the last great film Tim Burton has done in recent times. I’ll be perfectly frank… I enjoyed the Burtster’s take on “Alice in Wonderland.” Guilty pleasure, folks, don’t judge me. “Big Eyes” was a mistake one that should not be repeated. Who would have known Tim Burton would be the one to get a terrible performance out of Christoph Waltz? Guys, is that even possible?
While “Alice in Wonderland” was gaudy entertainment, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a dark morality tale, with, in my opinion, a genuine sense of artistry behind it. There was a barber and his wife… and it took only a bit of sleight hand by a corrupt judge (the suitably villainous Alan Rickman) to tear that happy couple apart forever. Now the barber (Johnny Depp,) sent away for a crime he didn’t commit, is a sadistic sociopath bent on revenge.
His wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) is out of the picture, having been driven crazy by the judge’s lascivious appetites, and their once infant daughter Joanna (Jayne Wisener) is Turpin’s young, beautiful prisoner. Lovestruck sailor boy Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) concocts a plan to rescue Joanna, but the barber, Benjamin Barker, or Sweeney Todd as he is now called, seems more concerned with getting gory revenge on the judge that ruined his life than protecting his daughter’s welfare.
Helena Bonham Carter gives the most artful performance as the equally homicidal Mrs. Lovett, who owns a pie shop known far and wide for it’s disgusting grub (as well as questionable sanitation) and forms a deal with Sweeney converting the men the insane barber kills with his razor into delicious meat pies, satiating his bloodlust while — surprise! business soars.
I’ve heard some people criticize Bonham Carter and Depp’s singing voices — saying they are not up for the job of a musical — but I did not consider their relative inexperience a problem. “Sweeney Todd” is stylized and moody and very, very gory, so expect blood spraying literally all over the set in various scenes. The psychology behind the character’s motivations — and their justifications for the atrocities the choose to commit —is interesting and I love the music. Catchy tunes are a prerequisite in a movie like this, and “Sweeney Todd” has the goods in terms of an addictive score.
Helena Bonham Carter acts with her eyes and the dark makeup shadowing her peepers makes her look perpetually like a work of expressionist art. Depp is slightly less compelling, playing the ultimate emo enraged (however justifiably) with how his life turned out. The only character I truly found myself empathizing with was the little boy (payed by Edward Sanders) who believed with an wide—eyed earnesty and breathtaking innocence that he would look after and protect Mrs. Lovett, and she him.
The rest? Fuck them. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett were morally reprehensible and foul; Joanna and Anthony were a little too much like starcrossed Disney lovers who walked into the wrong movie. Though I had a nagging feeling throughout that Joanna was exploiting the foolishly naive Anthony’s affections in order to get the hell out of dodge. She would be his prize, another kind of slavery, but anything was better than remaining in Judge Turpin’s lecherous possession.
“Sweeney Todd”‘s plot isn’t realistic at all (there’s a kind of unintentional hilarity in the way that, despite endless hint —dropping and an almost identical appearance, Turpin refuses to acknowledge Sweeney’s true identity —who is he, Clark Kent pulling the glasses on his face and the wool over the Judge’s eyes?)
My brother (ever the source of dry wit) quipped that when it came to Judge Turpin, ‘it was hard not to feel sorry for someone who was so like a potato in IQ.’ Not all villains have to be evil geniuses, but damn, that was kind of ridiculous, Turpin had to have gotten into a position of power by some method other than fucking people over. Apparently intelligence wasn’t one of them.
“Sweeney Todd” is a highly enjoyable film even while being morbid and tragic on a grand scale. The stylized storytelling and violence keeps it from being too tough a watch. The acting’s fine, the story’s cool, but the music? That’s really something to stay for. Tim Burton has his moments, and this is one of them. Those with weak stomachs might want to steer clear of this enthusiastically gory flick.