Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Jayne Wisener
"There's a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren't worth what a pig can spit / and it goes by the name of London."
From the subtly romantic musical stylings of the indie hit "Once" to critically acclaimed Coen Brothers' flick "No Country for Old Men" to this, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," 2007 has most certainly offered a surprisingly heavy dose of films devoid of the usual Hollywood-flavored, inspirational morals and happy endings.
Relentlessly morose and courageously just, Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" is a maniacal near masterpiece from a director whose tendency towards atmospheric excesses has, on occasion, sabotaged the substance of his films.
Admittedly, I've fancied myself a fan of Tim Burton's for many years and have yet to be disappointed by any of his collaborations with Johnny Depp. There is, it seems, a psychic camaraderie that exists between the two that makes virtually any project they touch instantly transcendent.
Let's be honest, "Sweeney Todd" even FEELS right for a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration. I mean, other than the fact that nobody really knew whether or not Johnny Depp could sing (despite the fact that he was in the 1980's band "The Kids"), the idea of Tim Burton directing Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd in a surprisingly faithful, at least in tone, cinematic interpretation of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway musical is so head-scratchingly obvious that one almost wonders why it took so long to happen.
In "Sweeney Todd," barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is returning to London after being in exile for 15 years on false charges by the quite evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) solely because the Judge desired Barker's beautiful wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and young child.
Barker, who adopts the name Sweeney Todd as he returns to his former home and barber shop, returns to find a pie shop underneath his former shop being run by the worst piemaker in London, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Determined to exact revenge upon Judge Turpin and his assistant, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall, "Enchanted"), Todd quickly learns from Mrs. Lovett of his wife's tragic fate and that his young child, Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is now a ward of Judge Turpin.
When his cover is nearly blown by a showboating Italian barber (Sacha Baron Cohen, "Borat"), Todd teams with Mrs. Lovett in a dastardly plot that will allow him to exact his revenge while, yes, supplying Mrs. Lovett with all the meat she could possibly need for her meat pies.
The more one ponders "Sweeney Todd," the more its subtle magnificence begins to reveal itself. Rest assured that "Sweeney Todd" is nothing like recent Hollywood musicals such as "Hairspray," "Chicago" or even "Moulin Rouge." "Sweeney Todd" is certainly a musical, but it is a relentlessly gory, defiantly moody and monstrously emotional tour-de-force that manages to be both confrontational and vulnerable in both its production design and performances.
As the grief-stricken to the point of insanity Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp creates such a multi-layered, psychologically grounded character that it practically defies description. While Depp is certainly not the strongest singer around, he carries with him the ability to balance competent singing with an emotional depth often lacking once a Broadway musical is brought to the big screen. Depp's woundedness is heartbreaking, yet so intense it almost brings to mind "A Clockwork Orange" in the way he becomes almost singularly centered on living out what has become his only purpose in life.
Carter, the director's partner and mother of his children, also lends a surprising complexity to Mrs. Lovett. Even as she is grinding away at Todd's ill-fated customers, it's hard not to feel a certain sadness knowing that she aspires to a seemingly unreachable life with Todd and, in the remarkably touching "Not While I'm Around," seems to wrestle with compassionate instincts that betray that which must be done.
While he's unlikely to attract much awards attention, Alan Rickman avoids the caricaturish potential of Judge Turpin and, instead, grounds him with a far more disturbing erotic tension thatn would have been achieved by simply turning him into your run-of-the-mill predatory abusive authority figure. As his frighteningly buffoonish assistant, it's as if Timothy Spall takes the character he played in "Enchanted" and turns him into an outright raving lunatic.
While the film's supporting players have less substance to work with, they seem to offer the film's strongest actual singing voices. Sacha Baron Cohen excels in his rather brief appearance as Pirelli, while Jayne Wisener is appropriately demure as Todd's daughter, Johanna. As Anthony, Johanna's would be suitor, Jamie Campbell Bower astounds with the tender "Johanna" and young Ed Sanders delights with his "Not While I'm Around."
Unfortunately, certain tunes from the Broadway show have been necessarily omitted. This becomes somewhat noticeable during the film's mid-stage, when the emphasis falls away from the pie shop and, instead, Burton chooses to focus the film squarely upon Depp. Likewise, the Broadway show's opening and closing tune, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," is heard only as an instrumental in a decision that is understandable and yet disconcerting as it leaves the fates of three particular characters uncertain (a variation from the Broadway show).
The combination of Dante Ferretti's production design, Dariusz Wolski's cinematography and Colleen Atwood's costuming combine to give the film a gothic look and feeling that complement the performances perfectly. Perhaps my only quibble with the film's production design would be in the almost cartoonish looking throat slittings that never felt nor looked authentic, and in momentary lapses in continuity such as the early on references to the pie shop's dirty, roach and rodent-infested kitchen that, only minutes later, is completely devoid of roaches or rodents.
While "Sweeney Todd" is not without its flaws, it remains an exhilarating and energizing cinematic experience and easily one of Tim Burton's best films. Powerfully acted, beautifully directed and awesomely designed, "Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is boldly envisioned and one of 2007's most unforgettable films.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic