It’s been a while since we’ve seen a Tim Burton film that featured the gloriously dark and twisted style of his earlier films. Some had criticised Burton for being a one-note director, but myself, I liked his style of movies, and I thought this criticism was unfair. To that end, it’s great to see him return to that gothic style with his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This musical sure ain’t family fare, as it’s the story of a serial-killing barber and his quest for revenge against the man who had him deported and stole his family.
Benjamin Barker was the best barber London had to offer. He was a naive man with a beautiful wife and baby daughter. But Judge Turpin, a cruel man, was jealous of Barker’s family, and using his power, had Barker arrested and deported and took Barker’s family for his own. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London under a new guise, that of Sweeney Todd. Todd has one thing on his mind, and that is revenge. He arrives at Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop, home of the worst pies in London. With Mrs. Lovett, Todd concocts an elaborate scheme to get his revenge on Turpin, and turn around the fortunes of Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop. But his desire for revenge becomes an obsession, and his plan faces peril as some people see through his guise and recognise the man he used to be.
When you think of musicals, you tend to think of the happy go lucky musicals of the forties and fifties. Images of Gene Kelly dancing through the streets singing about how happy he is. Sweeney Todd is the complete opposite to this. While there is a little dancing in the musical, it is in no way a happy story. There are very few musicals that feature a straight razor wielding serial killer and cannibalism. And such a story needs to be adapted by a director with the sensibilities of Burton. His dark, gothic style, seen in the likes of Sleepy Hollow and Edward Scissorhands fits the story to the ground. Indeed, both these films were collaborations between Burton and six-time leading man, Johnny Depp, and Depp is in the driving seat here again. It’s this collaboration that adds to the quality of Burton’s films, and it certainly helps here.
Johnny Depp once again uses the English accent he has become accustomed to while doing the reprehensible Pirates of the Caribbean films, but that’s about the only thing that Todd and Captain Jack have in common. Depp plays the brooding Todd very well, permanently scowling, and clearly consumed by his obsession. His singing is quite good, seemingly taking on a David Bowie edge to his voice. It’s a good move to have the lead actors sing their parts, as dubbing would have detracted from the performances. Especially considering almost the entire musical is sung.
Supporting Depp as Mrs. Lovett is Burton’s fiancee, Helena Bonham Carter. She made her name with a series of period pieces in her earlier career, but in the last few years, Carter has made a name playing more eccentric roles. She’s perfectly suited to play Mrs. Lovett, and while slightly mad, shows a tender side as she cares for Toby, the abused ward of Todd’s rival barber. The rival, Signor Adolfo Pirelli is a small cameo, but it’s played very well by Sacha Baron Cohen, clearly establishing a name for himself as a character actor. It’s a role that does seem like something Cohen could have come up with himself after Ali G and Borat, but that’s not to take away from the performance. He provides a good bit of comic relief, and can hold his own in the singing stakes.
Alan Rickman seems to have been born to play the villain. While he’s not given very much to do here, the scenes that he is in, he’s as brilliant as ever. His sidekick, Beadle Bamford is played by the brilliant Timothy Spall, who captures the extremely creepy nature of his role very well. Spall also has a great knack for playing villains, and he’s cast very smartly against Rickman. The only reservations I had in the cast were the roles of Johanna, played by Jayne Wisener and Anthony, played by Jamie Campbell Bower. Although I think that was more down to the weak love sub-plot rather than the actors’ performances.
One of the big stars of the film is the production design by Dante Ferretti. Ferretti, who won an Oscar for his work on The Aviator is on top form, creating the dark world that the characters inhabit. It’s a formula that works very well with Burton’s style. In fact, the whole look of the film is a visual treat, with plenty of claret spilled to fill Burton’s dark Victorian London. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Feretti will get his second Oscar for his work, and it won’t be undeserved.
While Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a very entertaining film, it’s in no way Burton’s best. In some ways, the character of Sweeney Todd could almost be seen as a grown up version of Edward Scissorhands. And so, for that reason, Sweeney Todd is the natural successor to that film. Having said that, it’s no where near as good as Edward Scissorhands. And the Oscar nomination for Depp does seem a little odd. It’s not a bad performance, but I still think it’s not Oscar worthy. Not for the kids, Sweeney Todd is still visually stunning, entertaining musical.