Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

As regular readers know, I am definitely not the sort who likes bloody and gross movies. That was one reason I avoided seeing Sweeney Todd in the theater, despite its rave reviews. Somehow all that blood didn’t seem in the holiday spirit. Sometimes though you have to grit your teeth (or in my case, fuzz my eyes during the worst parts) and watch a movie that otherwise obviously has plenty of merit. With renowned actor Johnny Depp playing the role of Sweeney Todd, plus a host of first rate familiar and not so familiar actors (including Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli), it was a movie unlikely to disappoint. It also helped that my 18-year-old daughter Rosie was a big fan of both Depp and the movie and had recently purchased the DVD.

Also providing impetus to view the movie was the reputation of its director: Tim Burton. Burton and Depp are quite a duo. It seems that Burton wants to cast Depp into all of his movies. Their relationship is now at least eighteen years old, when Burton first cast Depp in his breakout role of Edward Scissorhands. I correctly suspected I would need more than a few Rolaids to make it through Sweeney Todd.

Some of the violence is definitely cartoonish while others were too explicit for either my taste or my stomach. Fortunately, this is the kind of movie where you have a good idea when someone is about to die, since they have to be sitting in Sweeney Todd’s barbershop chair. Todd’s shop is conveniently located on the floor above Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop where she markets third class meat pies. I suspect you already know the gist of the plot. There is no point in filling up those pies with meat from dead cats when the psycho barber upstairs can provide a convenient fresh set of corpses, all for ready butchering.

The story of the demon barber of Fleet Street goes back to 1846 when this gruesome story was first published in serial form. It was likely written by the English author James Malcolm Rymer. Most Americans learned of Sweeney Todd from its musical adoption. Stephen Sondheim composed the lyrics and music to the highly successful Broadway musical, where it first arrived in 1979. Tim Burton’s task was to translate this successful and often performed musical to the big screen.

While I have yet to see Sweeney Todd in the theater, I can confidently say that I would be more comfortable with the musical on stage. On the stage, any depicted violence would be much less realistic and I would be much further removed from the action. Of course, in a movie the camera gives you an intimacy you cannot get in a theater. When necessary, which is too often for my tastes, Tim Burton is quite willing to let you see the gore first hand. This includes graphic shots of corpses in oversized meat grinders. The movie definitely deserved its R rating. There is no way I would have let any child of mine sees this movie until they were an adult, despite its obvious artistic merits.

In short, the movie, like its corpses, is a bloody well done, providing you can avoid retching. The movie is perfectly cast, led of course by the phenomenal Depp, but ably assisted by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. You will not need Smell-o-vision to smell the stench of London in the mid 19th century. Burton nails the time with uncanny authenticity, which is enhanced by the ever present London chimneys bellowing black smoke, which are seen out the grimy windows of Sweeney Todd’s barber shop. With the omnipresent rats, roaches and blood running in the sewers you feel the need to disinfect yourself when the movie is over. Of course, part of the magic of Sweeney Todd is how it mixes touches of macabre humor in its music and lyrics. Only there is nothing really to laugh over in the sick and diseased world around Fleet Street in London.

Sweeney Todd is a pseudonym for a barber who was pressed into being sailor. In the process, he lost his wife and daughter at the whim of an evil judge, spent fifteen years at sea and then finally made it back to London to wreak his revenge. Depp portrays Todd as a man obsessed with lashing out, not just at those who inflicted this injustice upon him but at all sorts of people in London he feels would be better dead than alive. Despite the measured attempts at a macabre humor throughout, Sweeney Todd is really a sick tragedy. As rendered by Burton, Sweeney Todd takes on Shakespearean dimensions. One can imagine William Shakespeare wistfully wishing he had the opportunity to write something as spectacular as the tragic tale of Sweeney Todd. Having seen many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, including likely his bloodiest, Richard III, Sweeney Todd still somehow seems bloodier.

In short, aided by Sondheim’s original interpretation, Burton does an outstanding job of bringing this story to the screen. Part of the problem is that he does too good a job. In fact, this is such a good movie that I really would like to see it again. The problem is I think I am too squeamish. So instead, I will wait to see it in on stage, and enjoy listening to the music from this wonderful musical. I am grateful for having seen this film once, and I will probably rue my own squeamishness that I cannot find the stomach to enjoy it a few more times.

In my humble opinion, this was a far worthier candidate for Best Picture than what actually won, No Country for Old Men. I really think it is a landmark film of some type. It is one of the few films I have ever rated at 3.5 or above.

I give Sweeney Todd 3.5 out of 4 stars.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: