Tim Burton’s movies share a lot of similarities, like a dark, colorless and oddball feel to them, and yet his audiences never quite know what to expect, because each of his films is unique. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is no exception. The film is an adaptation of the musical by Stephen Sondheim, and Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) plays the title character aside Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club).
Sweeney Todd is a character who first appeared in 1846 in The String of Pearls, a Victorian penny dreadful, and is an early version of an urban legend. The character was the subject of a ballet before Sondheim adapted the character and his story for the Broadway stage.
Sweeney, a talented barber, has returned to London and seeks
revenge on the judge that took away his family fifteen years earlier. His neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, helps him devise a plan to kill Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and hide the body, but Sweeney must be patient and keep his vengeance at a slow boil. Mrs. Lovett serves to keep his razors in check for a time, and knows what happened to Sweeney’s wife and daughter, information that will prove to be invaluable throughout the story.
The Broadway musical thriller opened in 1979 and ran for 557 performances. Turning a successful Broadway show into a motion picture was a challenge Tim Burton overcame with not one hair out of place. The movie is darker than the play, with fewer lighthearted moments, more subtle comedy and bittersweet romance, but the morbid tone makes the pain of the characters believable Thus the unrealistic portions of the plot (people served in meat pies, for example) don’t seem quite so distracting.
The film is most impressive because Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are able to pull sympathy from the crowd even as gory evil deeds fill the screen, with their emotions reverberating through their voices. Sondheim’s music is brilliant and able to maintain a little comedy to keep the audience from running in terror. As their plan to dispose of their victims in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies is sung to the audience, Sweeney and Lovett dance throughout the bakery and pull the audience into their sick enjoyment of revenge.
A few parts could have been improved with a little trimming. The long moments between scenes made me squirm, as did the lengthy title credits and the telescoped dramatic final scene. Even worse than the wait, Sacha Baron Cohen’s role as a rival barber was overly silly and wore like a bad haircut. Because his character was so annoying, watching his demise was more fulfilling than any other death in the film, including those of the more important antagonists.
The film is R-rated for its violence. It’s different from other thrillers in that it makes us cry, gasp, and laugh again and again. It satisfies in the eerie way only Tim Burton’s art can. Fans of the musical will see a large difference in mood between the stage and film versions of the story, and may be disappointed that a few songs were cut to make the ideal movie length, but the passion the actors bring into the film will keep Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp fans faithful. Viewers will find themselves sympathizing with one of the most vengeful characters of all time.
The film is as refreshing as a close shave – and you will not be disappointed.