Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
There has been no lack of well-made movie musicals this year—from the '60s-era Hairspray and Across the Universe to the Irish folk vehicle Once. But Sweeney Todd is another monster entirely. At a time of year when costume dramas and flashy stage-to-screen epics (like last year's Dreamgirls) make holiday audiences smile and swoon, something like Sweeney is an absolute anomaly. That's because it's a film about a psychotic, murderous barber (Johnny Depp) and his cannibalistic baker accomplice (Helena Bonham Carter). In a season of "goodwill toward all," Sweeney revels in the dog-eat-dog (or, more apropos to this film, man-eat-man) ugliness of human nature.
Based on the popular, offbeat musical by Stephen Sondheim (which opened on Broadway in 1979 and won eight Tony Awards that year), Sweeney spins a grisly tale of barbers and barbarism in Victorian-era London. The film opens as one Sweeney Todd (aka Benjamin Barker)—a world-weary, white-faced, smoky-eyed stranger—sails into London with an ax to grind and a razor to sharpen. In his former life he was a happy barber with a beautiful wife and baby daughter, until one unfortunate day when it was all taken away by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Falsely imprisoned for some fifteen years, Barker emerges from prison as Sweeney Todd, a schizophrenic alter ego with a one-track mind for revenge. Turpin has captured Todd's now-teenage daughter Johanna (played by the buxom Jayne Wisener), and Todd is determined to make him pay.
Unfortunately for the citizens of London, however (or at least those in need of a shave), Todd's singular pursuit of a dead Turpin quickly degenerates into an indiscriminate killing spree in which any and all patrons of Todd's barbershop are given the closest (and last) shave of their lives. Conveniently, Todd's shop is situated above the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett, proud baker of "the worst pies in London." Mrs. Lovett has just as many (or more) screws loose as Todd does, which makes them a deadly pair with the world's most macabre small business venture. The scheme? Todd's aristocrat customers climb in to his ill-fated barber's chair, get "shaved," and are then dumped backwards down a chute into the cellar/meat-packing room. Here they are packed, processed and baked into "meat" pies to be served to the noble clientele who unknowingly consume their Fleet Street neighbors.
Yes, it's morbid. And yes, it celebrates a glut of gore. Not since Kill Bill has bloodletting been so ridiculously overdone. But neither has it been so artistically rendered. The blood in Todd is a gorgeous red-orange hue that contrasts beautifully with the dark blues, grays and purples that are the predominant palette of the film. The blood oozes down cracks and crevices like wet paint, and splattering and spraying like a just-shaken carbonated beverage. Though it's debatable whether the violence in Todd is excessive, one can't deny that there is a certain poetry to the way it is used. Burton here uses it both for irony (as Tarantino does) and at times almost as a sacrament (as in Scorsese). The final shot of the film reminds me of the end of Gangs of New York, when after a symphony of blood and bombs and death, there is a sense of stasis and peace amid the broken bodies and bloodied environment. If it doesn't make you queasy, the final image of Todd evokes the painterly composition of a Goya or Francis Bacon painting.