The character of the murderous Sweeney Todd has appeared in numerous stories dating back to 1846 when he appeared in a penny part serial entitled The String of Pearls: A Romance. He is usually joined by his accomplice Mrs. Lovett, the pie-maker who ingeniously helps dispose of the bodies. In Christopher Bond’s 1973 play The String of Pearls, he gave Sweeney Todd a motivation for the killings beyond greed. Stephen Sondheim adapted Bond’s play into the 1979 Tony Award-winning musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Director Tim Burton brought the musical to the screen in a fantastic film.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) returns to London after an exile of 15 years to seek revenge on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who had him wrongfully imprisoned and banished to Australia because the judge fancied his wife. Barker meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), an unsuccessful pie maker, who informs him that his wife poisoned herself and the judge made Barker’s daughter his ward. Under the name Sweeney Todd, Barker, a barber by trade, sets up shop above Lovett’s place waiting for the chance to give Turpin the closest shave of his life. A former associate recognizes Todd and attempts to blackmail him, but Todd and his razors make him a counteroffer he can’t refuse.
The day finally arrives when Turpin sits in Todd’s chair, but fate, in the form of Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), upsets his plan. Hope, a young man Todd met on the ship from Australia, barges into the shop, seeking assistance to win the hand of Johanna (Jayne Wisener), Turpin’s ward, although she is not identified as such in front of Todd. Turpin and Hope have already had a run-in over her, and Turpin becomes so disappointed at the riffraff Todd associates with he storms off, claiming to never return. Todd is so furious about missing his chance with Turpin he throws Hope out.
Todd’s desire for revenge becomes a blood lust and it drives him mad. When he considers murdering others to stay in practice, Mrs. Lovett suggests a way to both dispose of the bodies and give her business a lift in the song “A Little Priest.” Todd sees her point since the world is “man devouring man.”
Hope learns that Johanna has been placed in a mental institution by Turpin and seeks Todd’s advice. Todd suggests a way to get Johanna released as a ruse to get Turpin to return to his shop. The film climaxes marvelously with secrets revealed and characters getting their just desserts, which is fitting in a bakery.
Director Tim Burton is a natural for this Gothic tale that’s a throwback to classic horror films and towers high above the current horror craze. Sweeney Todd has a story filled with realistic characters driven by believable motivations, and the gruesomeness derives naturally from the story. It’s not just an excuse, like so much modern movie fodder, to create ways to torture and kill bodies. The film is also is a morality play, showing the destructive power of revenge.
Sondheim’s music and score rank as some of the best work he has ever done. They are very compelling and it’s no surprise that some productions have presented the musical as an opera. The talented cast of actors, who are not known for their singing, do a terrific job tackling songs with difficult harmonies and phrasing.
Aside from the film, disc one contains the special feature “Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd,” with the cast and crew discussing the project. The Special Edition contains a second disc chock full of extras for fans of the movie and its subject matter. There is a 20-minute press conference from 2007 with the usual idiot questions from the press; “Sweeney Is Alive: The Real History of The Demon Barber” presents a historical look at the character; “Musical Mayhem: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd” is a very good feature with Sondheim talking about the origin of the musical; “Sweeney’s London” looks at 18th and 19th century London; “The Making of Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is similar to “Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd” without a lot of repetition; “Designs for a Demon Barber” features costume designer Colleen Atwood who received an Oscar nomination for her work, and production designer Dante Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo, whose work won; “A Bloody Business” features the special effects team who dealt with the blood, and a few others.
Sweeney Todd is an impressive artistic achievement by all involved and is arguably Burton’s best film to date. “God, That's Good!” was one of many songs from the musical that didn’t make it into the film, but it perfectly encapsulates my reaction.