Image source. Copyright DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007.
Sweeney Todd is not for the faint of heart. This is one of the darkest movies made in the last 20 years. Murder, rape, sexual perversion, insanity, poison, corruption – the world director Tim Burton has designed here is, as Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) himself puts it, “full of shit.” Prepare yourself for a movie that will move you even as it throws image after image of sickening filth at you. The sheer amount of passion that courses through this movie, if you can bear it, is well worth stomaching.
The plot of Sweeney Todd begins when the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) exiles Sweeney Todd, erstwhile a humble barber named Benjamin Barker, from London on a trumped-up charge. Turpin, we see, is the kind of sexual pervert who prominently displays volumes of pornography on his bookshelves, and he takes advantage of Todd’s exile to seize Todd’s wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) for himself. At the start of the movie, Todd has changed his name and is returning to London, accompanied by his naïve friend Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower). Bitter and eager for revenge, Todd learns that Judge Turpin raped Lucy, that Lucy then poisoned herself with arsenic, and that Turpin and his unctuous aide Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) now keep Todd’s daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) all but imprisoned in her bedroom. What Todd wants now is simple: Johanna back and Judge Turpin’s head. But with the help of doting pie-maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), Todd ends up expanding the reach of his vengeance crusade beyond what even he originally imagined.
Instead of shrinking away from showing all the gruesome murders Todd ends up committing in his barber shop, Burton buckles down and decides to display most of the deaths head-on. The images chill, but after a while the repeated sight of blood spewing uncontrollably from a victim’s neck can be a tad…nauseating. Does every death need to be so graphic? The same goes for the overall atmosphere and set design: there’s only one short segment in the middle of the film where the sky shows a hint of being blue. At some point, you learn to ignore the constant foreboding black clouds hanging over Todd’s barber shop, if only to spare yourself from depression. For the most part, however, the atmosphere of despair Burton has created works its intended effect. You’ll find here a meticulously well-designed movie, with performances to die for.
Depp, of course, is the absolute stand-out. He makes up for his palatable singing with the intensity of the energy he radiates in every scene. Every gesture, every eye movement, every word out of Depp screams of rancor and hate. When Depp gazes with fixation at the razor in his hand, erstwhile a tool for cleaning, soon a weapon for bloody revenge, you know this is a man who will stop at nothing to avenge the injustice of his past. Aside from Depp, Carter does a marvelous job playing Todd’s lovesick sidekick, Rickman barely resembles the Severus Snape we’ve all come to know, and Sacha Baron Cohen has a brief but hilarious role as Pirelli, a would-be barber with a horrific fake Italian accent. Beyond the acting, the musical numbers, drawn directly from the Broadway musical, occasionally stumble. Some of the duet lyrics don’t meld together very well, and at times the singing is a bit flat. But in general, Sondheim’s music complements Burton’s dark lighting and sets scarily well.
All in all, Sweeney Todd might put you off with its seemingly limitless capacity for gore. If it doesn’t, let yourself be swept away in one of the most thrilling, frightening, brilliant movie musicals ever. It’s not every day, after all, that you feel sorry for a ruthless serial killer.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running Time: 116 minutes
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan
Based on the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical.