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Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Reviewed by Laura G. Eldred, © 2007

Format: Movie
By:   Tim Burton (director)
Genre:   Gothic musical
Review Date:   December 28, 2007
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Last time I saw a Johnny Depp film, I was in the first stages of labor. Not even the ever-increasing, soul-flaying pain of impending childbirth could drag me away from Depp's gorgeousness as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean 3. Nonetheless, my husband tells me it wasn't a terribly good film.

My own memories of it are a hazy blur of Depp sashaying in his androgynous way through a forest of trees with fruits that looked tantalizingly like epidural syringes -- all barely out of reach. Scarcely reliable.

During Sweeney, my discomfort was significantly less. Yes, I had gulped down a Venti Decaf White Chocolate Mocha five minutes before the film started, but it was so good I didn't even notice the increasing painful pressure below my belt.

What can I say, Sweeney Todd was entrancing. And not in the everything's-surreal-and-vaguely-reminds-you-of-torture kind of way that comes from seeing a film while in labor. It's a darkly dense, rather bloody vision of a fatalistic universe, all wrapped up in a light, flaky pastry of musical goodness, with solid acting, singing, and some fun details that make the whole thing worthwhile.

I am not a huge Broadway aficionado. Musicals tend to strike me as syrupy confetti concoctions unsuited to my own macabre sense of humor -- Evil Dead: The Musical excepted. And I was also skeptical of this film because, as much as I love films like Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton's work sometimes seems repetitive to me (more on this below).

But the film is great fun, and Burton's melodramatic gothicity meshes brilliantly with Sondheim's musical -- which is, of course, itself a rather gothic business. For those of you who aren't big musical buffs, the basic idea of Sweeney Todd is that Depp's character, who was once known as Benjamin Barker, has returned to London after being convicted on trumped up charges and deported for fifteen years. He had a beautiful wife, Lucy, who was coveted by the corrupt local judge Turpin. Turpin arranged to have Benjamin taken out of the picture so that he could enjoy Lucy's charms unthwarted.

Benjamin returns to London to find out that Lucy has died and Turpin has claimed Benjamin's then infant daughter Johanna as his own. Benjamin takes the name of Sweeney Todd and takes up his old barber's blades with a new purpose: revenge. Murder, dismemberment, and cannibalism ensue from there.

Casting decisions were brilliant. You, like me, may have been skeptical of the choice to cast Depp in a singing role. Fortunately, the role of Sweeney Todd is not one that requires a highly polished, refined voice. Depp is not an opera star, but he doesn't need to be -- and shouldn't be -- for this role, which requires something darker and something distinctly unpolished. Depp's voice is perfectly passable and he infuses all the doom and desperation required by the role into every note.

Helena Bonham Carter, as Mrs. Lovett, similarly did an excellent job, despite some complaints I've heard about her voice. The role needs an eccentric voice, and Carter's heavily accented birdlike chirping captures her character's twisted idealism quite well. Alan Rickman, as Judge Turpin, doesn't do a whole lot of singing, but he also does just fine, and he -- as we well know from the Harry Potter series -- can channel smarmy moral questionability like nobody's business, and even does it with an unexpected dash of sexiness. Nobody but Jeremy Irons can pull that off as well as Alan Rickman.

Sacha Baron Cohen plays Pirelli, who comes off as an Italianized Borat. While his role doesn't showcase Cohen's range, it's amusing enough. For Buffy fans like me, Anthony Stewart Head, also known as Giles, makes an appearance as well.

One stand out as far as singing is young actor Ed Sanders as Toby. He has a gorgeous, light voice that counterbalances all the darkness and roughness of the rest of the musical -- in the voices and the plot.

Perhaps there's more to say about Depp. Burton's vision of Depp -- all white face, eyeliner, black leather, and big hair -- is becoming iconic. No matter the film, Burton positions Depp in the same way: an only marginally alive pinup, gorgeous and emotionally fragmented. This film adds a white streak in Depp's hair, turning him into a murderous Stacy London, but it's otherwise part and parcel of the whole Burton/Depp aesthetic. I hesitate to complain.

In 1990, when Edward Scissorhands came out, I was thirteen. I spent a solid three hours crying. My parents went into RiteAid for some cotton balls. I stayed in the van crying. We drove home. I cried. I cried some the next day. It's a deeply affective pose: Depp, with his big soulful eyes and polished cheekbones, clad in leather that highlights his slim frame, wild hair only framing those big eyes and monstrous cheekbones.

I can understand why Depp and Burton keep revisiting this vision. It's a hell of a pose. I just wonder if it'll eventually get boring for one or both of them, if not for audiences.

Depp might do well to dye his hair blond, gain a little weight, and play a happy father, just to shake things up.

Sweeney Todd isn't exactly likeable, as a character. You sympathize with his plight, and you understand his lust for revenge, but he jumps so quickly into slitting throats that he's never quite a fully developed, human character. He becomes so focused on his revenge, so blind to all else, that he merely emerges as a symbol, and the film a morality tale about the dangers of vengeance.

As W.B. Yeats said, "hearts with one purpose alone / Through summer and winter seem / Enchanted to a stone / To trouble a living stream." Sweeney Todd is as good an example of this as Yeats's original topic, Irish rebels -- too deep a devotion to any cause, vengeance or national freedom, robs people of their humanity.

Sweeney claims that the history of the world has been of those below serving those above, and his murderous reversal, which makes those above serve those below, is thus just payback. Despite Sweeney's seductive argument that his work performs a social service, a la Robin Hood with a very big knife, the musical ultimately undercuts Sweeney's vision of justice.

His all-encompassing misanthropy kills indiscriminately and finally produces the bleak, warped world that his "work" was supposed to protest. Thus, though Sweeney Todd might seem to be part of the passel of recent films and TV shows celebrating serial killers as vigilante heroes (like Dexter and Hannibal Rising; see the Hannibal review for my complaints about that subgenre), it doesn't really fit. Sondheim doesn't, in the end, set Sweeney up as any kind of hero -- just as a sad, ruined man, both sinning and sinned against.

Burton does a brilliant job of staging the "By the Sea" song, which becomes a montage of Depp and Carter, still decked out in their clownish gothic melodrama gear, parading around in the bright daylight of the beach -- Carter smiling girlishly, and ghoulishly, at her incredible luck while Depp scowls and winces at every dose of sentimental claptrap.

If you're in the mood for some dark, gothic, musical goodness, it's brilliant stuff. The direction, sets, and cinematography are all perfect for Sondheim's 1979 vision.

My only complaint is that Depp and Burton perhaps need some time apart, or to make, occasionally, a different movie. Depp runs the risk of only being cast as a parody of himself, of people forgetting that he's good for anything at all other than being an eyelinered melodramatic girlish pinup.

That said, the pinup's staying on my wall for the foreseeable future.

RevSF staff writer Laura Eldred hopes that she doesn’t rupture her spleen during Depp’s next movie.

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