I’m hard pressed to recall a recent movie that revels in sanguinary excess as much as “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” From the animated ichor running through the opening titles to the numerous arterial plumes that paint the floors, walls, and even the characters themselves, we haven’t seen this much hemoglobin in a Johnny Depp film since the infamous blood geyser in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Yet for all that, “Sweeney Todd” might be director Tim Burton’s most accessible film since…hell, I don’t know…”Planet of the Apes?” The exception being that the former is actually good.
An adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical (itself based on the play by Christopher Bond), the film is a cheerfully nasty surprise, coming as it does at the end of the year that heard the death rattle of the “torture porn” subgenre. “Sweeney Todd” succeeds precisely because, unlike Eli Roth and his ilk, Burton and screenwriter John Logan (following Sondheim’s lead) temper the copious amounts of gore with black humor and not-so-subtle socio-economic commentary.
Todd (Depp) – real name Benjamin Barker – is returning to London in secret after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment. He was once a successful barber, as well as a devoted husband and father, until the lecherous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) set his sights on Barker’s wife and had him sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit. The newly christened Todd has come back to the city to search for his family. Unsurprisingly, his years away have soured him somewhat on his former home, as he sings:
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 pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.
And so he ventures off into this wretched hive of scum and villainy. Upon returning to his old house on Fleet Street Todd learns from his neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), that Turpin went on to rape his wife, who then poisoned herself. His daughter Johanna is now the Judge’s ward. Hopes for a joyous reunion thus dashed, Todd opts for revenge, but when the Judge unexpectedly slips through his fingers, he’s forced to broaden his horizons. He redirects his rage at the rest of the city’s well-to-do residents, murdering them in the comfort of his custom designed abbatoir/barber shop. The fact that Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie business is suffering thanks to a lack of fresh ingredients only ensures that corpse disposal won’t be a problem.
Macabre concept aside, “Sweeney Todd” is largely free of annoying Burton trademarks, like Danny Elfman. Granted, London looks every bit as dank and corrupt as Gotham City did in “Batman,” but the director exercises a surprising amount of restraint, never allowing the cast to stray into absurdity. Depp and Carter both give moving performances but are, at times, so reticent that it prevents us from becoming fully involved with their characters. Depp in particular remains withdrawn until the film’s climax, content to let his comically dark circled eyes do most of the work (minus the hair, he’s a dead ringer for that demon face from “The Exorcist”). Carter fares better, but we’ve seen her play the off-kilter anti-heroine so many times Mrs. Lovett inevitably starts blurring into Bellatrix Lestrange and Marla Singer. It’s hell being a Goth icon, I guess. Sacha Baron Cohen also makes the most of his small role as rival barber Signor Pirelli.
I enjoyed “Sweeney Todd,” not just for the gleeful murders, the majority of the songs (especially “No Place Like London” and “A Little Priest”), or the depiction of London as a kind of Victorian Mos Eisley, but because I know a lot of people with no knowledge of Sondheim’s musical (much less Bond’s play) are going to buy tickets for a cute holiday movie starring that handsome Johnny Depp and end up experiencing something else entirely. Bon appétit.