Revenge, as the old saying goes, is a dish best served cold, but in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” revenge is served piping hot and wrapped in a pastry shell. Continuing their creative collaboration, director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp bring Stephen Sondheim’s musical to the big screen, complete with violence, gore and some rather tasty meat pies.
Sweeney Todd Seeks Justice
Fifteen years before the story begins, a talented barber named Benjamin Barker (Depp) lived happily in London with his beautiful wife and adorable daughter. Unfortunately, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the local magistrate, fell in love with Barker’s wife and had him arrested on false charges. After he’s taken forcibly from London, his wife, it is said, commits suicide and his daughter becomes the ward of Judge Turpin.
Mrs. Lovett Makes the Worst Pies in Town
Even with downcast eyes and skin like a ghoul, Sweeney Todd catches the eye of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a woman who runs a shop where she makes the worst pies imaginable. Roaches have overtaken her kitchen and not even Gordon Ramsay could find a way to save this shop. Ironically, Benjamin Barker’s old apartment is located above the shop and, in one of the musical’s most inspired moments, Todd sings a love ballad to his precious set of straight razors. It truly is a chilling moment when Sweeney Todd holds one of them aloft and sings “Now my arm is complete.”
Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett Work Together
With razors in hand, Sweeney Todd prepares to return to his old profession, this time as a way to exact his revenge on what was taken from him. His new method of shaving his male customers also helps Mrs. Lovett create the fillings for her meat pies. In a short time, Mrs. Lovett has one of the most popular eating establishments on Fleet Street.
The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Team Works Well Once Again in “Sweeney Todd”
Beginning with “Edward Scissorhands,” Tim Burton and Johnny Depp solidified into a team that produces intriguing films with definite drawing power at the box office. Even in the bright, pastel-colored suburban neighborhood that makes up much of “Edward Scissorhands,” Burton always manages to create worlds that are dark and foreboding and “Sweeney Todd” is no exception. Burton use light and dark to contrast the tortured soul of the demon barber with the more innocent, naive spirit of Benjamin Barker.
Taking advantage of a stage as big as he wants to make, Burton also is able to create, in horrific detail, Sweeney Todd’s unique barber chair and the special room in the basement where Mrs. Lovett makes her special meat pies. Burton also uses, to borrow a line from Joe Bob Briggs, buckets of blood whenever Sweeney Todd goes to work.
Johnny Depp is Perfectly Cast as Sweeney Todd
The majority of “Sweeney Todd” is told through the music of Stephen Sondheim and Depp sings in a voice that’s clean and sharp. Depp’s voice, appearance and superb acting allow Sweeney Todd’s year of anguish to come through loud and clear.
Helena Bonham Carter Can’t Sing
Tim Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter, plays Mrs. Lovett with the right amount of malice, but when she sings, it’s almost impossible to understand every word that she’s saying. Bonham Carter manages to clearly deliver a few deliciously evil lines, but these are too rare to be acceptable. Her voice hurts the quality of the musical, especially when audiences can’t understand the words to a wickedly funny tune like “A Little Priest.”
Sacha Baron Cohen Plays an Italian Barber
“Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen gets more laughs than Burton probably bargained for as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, a rival barber from Italy. Cohen wears a garish blue outfit with pants so tight that they leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.
The Bottom Line: “Sweeney Todd” Cuts Out the Competition
Despite a few flaws, the triple-threat of Stephen Sondheim, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton make “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” a truly exceptional film.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” rated R for graphic bloody violence, opens nationwide on Friday, December 21.