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Movie Review: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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Critically acclaimed film director Tim Burton and Academy Award nominated actor Johnny Depp have collaborated on several films over the years. In this dark, gothic tale set to music and gore in 18th century London, they are reunited.

Sweeney Todd (Depp) is created from the fictional character who first came to prominence in a story called "The String Of Pearls: A Romance", written by Thomas Peckett Prest and published in The People's Periodical in November 1846. Since then the British playwright Christopher Bond's 1973 stage play would introduce the revenge plot between Benjamin Barker (aka Sweeney Todd) and Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) which brought the story to a wider audience via Stephen Sondheim's award winning musical Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that captivated the Broadway stage. Now the imaginative film director Burton has adapted a three-hour stage musical into a two-hour movie, focusing very tightly on the Todd/Barker journey and the triangle relationship of Todd, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), and the ward Toby (Edward Sanders).

The story opens on a ship arriving in London from Australia, where escaped prisoner Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd is vowing to his young shipmate and friend Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) that he will seek revenge on the evil Judge Turpin and his henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). Judge Turpin falsely imprisoned Todd 15 years earlier in order to steal his wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and infant daughter.

In the process of achieving that revenge, Todd sets up a barber shop above a meat pie eatery owned and run by Mrs. Lovett, who knows the identity of Todd and falls in love with him. In his desperate desire for revenge, Todd goes mad and slashes his patrons' throats and dispenses with the dead bodies in Mrs. Lovett's meat grinding machine, where they end up in her pies. Between all the blood and great songs, Judge Turpin's ward, who is Sweeney Todd's now grown daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), is being forced against her will to wed the Judge. It happens that she has eyes for the young sailer Anthony (Todd's shipmate from Australia).

Among the supporting cast is Sacha Baron Cohen, who portrays Signor Adolfo Pirelli, a con man who uses the young ward Toby to help in a street vending show. Cohen's brief appearence on screen is ended when he attempts to blackmail Todd, which allows young Toby to become part of Mrs. Lovett's household. This forms the triangle between Todd, Mrs. Lovett, and Toby.

When I first heard Johnny Depp's singing voice, I was surprised that it was so good. For someone who's not primarily a professional singer, his performance is outstanding. Alan Rickman had done some singing in past performances, and Helena Bonham Carter had to receive training, having done no singing before. From statements from Paramount press releases, Bonham Carter took daily lessons from June to September of 2006. It paid off because it is Bonham Carter who has not only the most songs to sing, but the most complicated ones, too. Her character's signature song, "The Worst Pies in London", required her not only to sing but to make an entire pie from scratch. DreamWorks publicity said she took lessons from a real pie maker in preparation for her character.

I was very impressed with Johnny Depp's performance in this musical, because with the story of Sweeney Todd told mainly through music and lyrics as opposed to dialogue, the recording sessions would be more than just about him getting the songs musically correct. The actors would be singing to their pre-recorded tracks on set, and then having to find their performance in the recording booth and commit to it then and there, rather than months later during filming. This is a different discipline, because the moment the song is laid down the actor is committed months in advance to his actual performance on screen and I believe Depp and the entire cast did a great job mastering that.

I applaud Tim Burton for not straying from the successful stage production's vision and keeping this powerful and dark musical focused on one man's desire for revenge. Not to spoil anything, but be sure to pay close attention in the final scenes for a clever twist for an ending.

This is an excellent film and I expect many nominations.

Directed by: Tim Burton
Running time: 116 minutes
Release date: December 21, 2007 (wide)
Genre: Musical, Drama/Performing Arts, Thriller and Adaptation.
Distributor: Paramount/DreamWorks Pictures (Domestic) and Warner Bros. (International)
MPAA Rating: R

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About Gerald Wright

  • jayfez

    Carter and the sailor were cast too young – Deep could have stood up to Meryl Streep and been better, Mrs. Lovett is supposed to be older, that is part of the ridiculousness. Depp is channeling David Bowie (vocally a clone) though it largely works. The ending is so gruesome that Dick Cheney would enjoy it. I’ve really loved this work since it was first on stage, and a lot of the film is beautiful (if constricted and over-CGIed visually). With the chorus removed and no stronger recognition by Sweeney at the end, it does seem bloodily pointless, which was always a lingering doubt about the original. So is it a musical about a murderous sociopath or a sociopathic musical film?

  • http://www.Blogcritics.org Gerald Wright-the film reviewer

    Thank you for your comments and they are very good. I tend to see this film as the latter, a sociopathic musical film. Never the less, a good film.

  • Angel

    I find that this movie is a very witty and filled with dark, wry humor. The way tim burton showed the outlook of every character, especially the metaphors in the bright red blood, is amazing. I find the songs are addictive, yet tend to keep their original appeal even after the fith hundredth time you’ve heard. A must watch
    5/5