Make up. Murder. Meat pies.
It’s been nearly 24 hours since I saw Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and I’m still in shock. I shouldn’t be. I’m familiar with the story. I saw the stage show in college when a friend of mine had the starring role. But nonetheless, here I am, agog and not entirely sure what I think of it.
To begin with, Sweeney Todd is the story of a man, Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), who was once a happy nineteenth century London barber with a wife and a child. Then he was falsely imprisoned by the horrible, unethical and merciless Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) so that the judge could have Barker’s wife all to himself. The wife poisons herself, the daughter becomes a ward of the judge, and Barker winds up in an Australian penal colony for 15 years before making his precarious way back to London to seek his revenge. He takes up residence in the apartment above the disgusting pie shop of his old landlord, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), and passes himself off as someone else, under the name of Sweeney Todd. His plan is to get the judge in his barber chair and slit his throat. But when Sweeney must ‘dispatch’ a rival barber who recognizes him for his true identity, he and Mrs. Lovett realize that human flesh might just be the secret ingredient to delectable meat pies.
Obviously the story of Sweeney Todd is a dark one and always was a rather unusual musical. Not that people don’t generally go gaga over the score by Sondheim—they do—but musicals are usually more about unrequited love and tuberculosis, not bloodthirsty Victorian barbers with a penchant for slitting throats during a shave. And cannibalism. We mustn’t forget the cannibalism.
Suffice it to say that Sweeney Todd is right in director Tim Burton’s (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands) sweet spot. It is literally difficult to imagine a story for which he is better suited and it shows. The look of the film is classic Burton—stylishly and stylistically nightmarish, dark and dusty, and with just enough quirk thrown in. The sets, the costumes, the make up—all perfect down to the last detail, and—may we claim a new adjective?—Burton-esque to a ‘t.’ Even Depp (the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Finding Neverland) and Bonham Carter’s (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fight Club) Halloween-ish white pancake make up with dark, hollowed-out eyes works perfectly and somehow comes off as appropriate.
Furthermore, in addition to branding Sweeney Todd with his signature look, Burton successfully takes advantage of the medium of film in his adaptation the musical. One of the main advantages of film is the freedom it gives in visually depicting a story—a freedom, if you ask me, that should be exploited when adapting a story from the stage. Otherwise, why bother? Unlike Chicago, which was made to look like a nicely shot stage show, Burton actually uses the camera to take his story off the stage with lushly realized imagination sequences, different sets, and lots of cool shots.
But whether or not this production would be eye candy was hardly ever a question. Rather, the big concern was will the music work? And to that my answer is, ‘sort of.’ The trailer for Sweeney Todd led me to wonder what the talking to singing ratio was going to be, and it turns out it Sweeney Todd is pretty much a true musical—nearly all songs—and fairly true to its musical predecessor. Although that brings with it some problems, as well--mostly because a lot of the songs are more just standing around singing about things and not actually doing the things they are singing about, which has a tendency to slow down the action.
As a result, Sweeney Todd feels slow in parts and you get anxious waiting for all the bloodletting to begin. But once it does—oh mercy me. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect the movie to be this grisly. Like I said, I’ve seen Sweeney Todd, but I saw it on stage, which limits the ability to actually gush blood the way you can on film. And like I said, Burton was taking full advantage of his medium. Translation? Multiple, full-on, prolonged, unflinching shots of throat after throat being slit, fountains of blood spurting and splurting onto the camera lens, and body after body flying down the chute and careening onto the floor with a massive neck-snapping thump. It is, as my friend said, pure goth porn. You expect something, you just don’t expect candy-red rivers of slasher movie camp. It is so outlandish, so beyond the pale, that it is funny. I’m not entirely sure what Burton was going for with all this gore, ‘what he was trying to say’ as it were, but it sure says something. Perhaps ‘revenge is messy’?
Mind you, these were not the only funny moments in the movie. Not surprisingly, as the poncy, fussy Italian barber Pirella, Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is perfect and hilarious. Indeed, if you ask me, all the casting is perfect. Newcomer Jayne Wisener is the quintessential pretty blonde soprano as Todd’s daughter Johanna, Rickman (Harry Potter, Love Actually) earned his stripes as evil smarties like Severus Snape for a reason, and Tim Burton likes to work with Johnny Depp for a reason, as well.
In fact, in an interview for a You Kill Me earlier this year, Tea Leoni referred to Johnny Depp as a character actor with leading man looks. Never has a truer phraase bee