This film’s bloody brilliant
Musicals usually suffer in transition to the big screen; when characters suddenly break into song, it shatters believability and the plot gets stopped dead in its tracks. Good thing, then, that the fantastic “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” couples its songs with black humor, palpable horror and gallons of blood pouring off the screen. In sections, director Tim Burton’s adaptation of the Broadway musical is a veritable ballet of arterial spray: Impossibly bright fountains of red slash across the film’s black and gray pallor, bringing the play’s themes of vengeance and violence cruelly to bear. Burton seems born to adapt Steven Sondheim’s dark musical, and after seeing the recent hit revival on Broadway, I’ll go as far as to say Burton has made it even darker and more malevolent, creating some sort of evil masterpiece in the process. Johnny Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a London barber sent to an Australian prison on false pretenses after the lecherous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) turns a perverted eye towards Barker’s beautiful young wife. Barker returns 15 years later to discover his wife has died of suicide and the judge has taken in Barker’s daughter Joanna as his own ward. Consumed by rage, Barker reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd, a terrifying tonsorial expert who swears revenge on his enemies and humanity via the closest shaves in all of London. Todd forms an unlikely partnership with the eminently practical and ashen Ms. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who owns and operates the thoroughly disgusting meat pie shop below him. It’d be a shame to see all that meat go to waste, you see, and Ms. Lovett’s business could use a little kick…I’ll leave you to put the grisly details together. The biggest question on everyone’s lips might be “but can Depp sing?” I’m pleased to report that Depp has a fine voice, and what he lacks in formal training and Broadway polish he more than makes up for with rock-star bravado. In fact, Depp’s harsher rock n’ roll delivery brings an urgency and edge to Sondheim’s vengeful songs; the play always implied this danger, but the message sometimes got diluted amidst all the dulcet tones. Bonham Carter has a thin, wan singing voice, but it actually suits the casually homicidal Ms. Lovett well, especially when she sings longingly of having an actual life with Todd after vengeance has been paid — it’s a dream even she doesn’t seem to believe could ever come true. Rickman brings his usual foreboding excellence, and he’s matched by his cohorts Timothy Spall as the judge’s simpering toady and Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Todd’s faux-Italian barber rival Pirelli with hilarious flamboyancy. “Sweeney Todd” on stage thrived on the ideas of murder and cannibalism as the basis for a hit play, but the darker, pessimistic themes of vengeance, death and a bleak world couldn’t help but get played for laughs or lost in the sunnier tropes of Broadway. Burton, along with his stellar repertoire that includes frequent collaborators Depp and partner Bonham Carter, does the material right by allowing the play’s inherent horror to bloom to its full potential. There is real fear and terrible violence in this film, and Burton doesn’t pull any punches when Sweeney Todd flies into a bloody, murderous rage or when his limp victims are ground into meat. Spurts of constant black humor leaven the proceedings, but there’s no real hope to be had in this hellish vision of London populated by the haunted demon barber Sweeney Todd. When you couple Burton’s unrelenting savagery with Sondheim’s gorgeous songs, you get a vision of hell that sounds heavenly.