"I will have vengeance! I will have salvation!" So laments former Fleet Street barber
extraordinaire, Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, upon his London homecoming. After
being forcibly exiled to Australia and wrongfully imprisoned, Todd returns 15 years later
to exact revenge on those who destroyed his life and that of his wife and child. Based
on the award winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, "Sweeney Todd" is unlike
any other musical you may have seen. While it does employ classic elements of tragedy like
love loss and revenge, it does so with buckets of blood. Perfect material for a
collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, who previously teamed up on such works
as "Corpse Bride," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and "Sleepy Hollow." Although a
far cry from Broadway, this "Sweeney Todd" is rife with Dickensian imagery, throat-slashing
madness, and a melancholic, magical score that is unsurprisingly, razor sharp.
Enter Benjamin Barker, a barber sentenced to life abroad for a crime he didn't commit. And
by Judge Turpin, who lusted after his beautiful wife, Lucy. Now, 15 years later, Barker has
escaped from prison, has been rescued by a sailor named Anthony Hope, and has returned to
London under the name, Sweeney Todd. Upon his return, Todd becomes re-acquainted with his
stomping grounds on Fleet Street, his old barbershop, and Mrs. Lovett, his landlady,
notorious for making the worst meat pies in London. Through Lovett, he learns of the
tragedy that befell his wife and daughter, and the judge that made it all happen.
With nothing but bloody revenge on his mind, Todd takes up residency in his former shop,
rediscovers his "old friends" (his razors), and reopens his business. But this time,
something's slightly different. In conjunction with his barber chair, he installs a
trapdoor, a devilish device that allows him to dispose of his patrons after slicing their
throats and allows Mrs. Lovett to cut them up and turn them into meat pies. As business
takes off for Todd and Lovett's pies become a tasty success, Anthony falls in love with a
young girl named Johanna, whom he spies outside Judge Turpin's home. Unable to get to her
without going through Turpin first, he solicits Sweeney Todd for advice. Upon news of
this, Todd uses Anthony to plot and scheme his way to Judge Turpin. And in doing so, brings
upon a fate that has dire consequences for all.
Various accounts dating all the way back to 1825 detail the legend of a particular hairdresser,
known for decapitating his patrons. Many of them in British serials known as penny dreadfuls. Of
them, the most significant was Thomas Peckett Prest's story, "The String of Pearls: A Romance,"
which in 1847 became the impetus for George Dibden Pitt's dramatic adaptation, "Sweeney Todd: The
Demon Barber of Fleet Street." The success of Dibden's play lent itself to further stage and
film iterations over the following decades, which in turn, helped fuel the legend. Then, in
1973, British playwright Christopher Bond wrote a new version of Sweeney Todd, one that gave
Todd a new identity and a back-story as Benjamin Barker, which made the character more empathetic
and less cold-blooded. And readily adaptable into Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Broadway
musical, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.
After such memorable notes as "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood," "Sweeney Todd" represents
the sixth collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. And it certainly has Burton's trademark
flair - dark, grotesque, and tragic. But unlike previous works, it's far more graphic, smattered
with over-the-top bloodshed and gore. So much so, it's almost comedic in nature. Just watch the
unexpected and compact disposal of barber competitor, Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Cohen). And the "Kill
Bill" montage that follows. Additionally, Burton's strength lies in his ability to accentuate
Sondheim's score and abbreviate when necessary, thereby maximizing the skills of his cast and presenting
them in the best possible light.
Ironically, the film's opening sequence is a lot like a certain Caribbean pirate trilogy. Sweeney
Todd stands aboard a large galleon, cutting its way through fog and shadow, approaching medieval
London. But before one can utter the name Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp begins to sing in a
hauntingly light baritone. And surprisingly, his vocal prowess takes hold. No more firmly than in
the beautiful rendition of "My Friends," in which Todd rediscovers his barbershop blades, alongside
the doting Mrs. Lovett. While not as commanding as Len Cariou in the original Broadway production,
Depp is nevertheless remarkable, able to sustain and carry Sondheim's lyrics simplistically. More
importantly, he embraces the totality of the character - the sadness, the guile, and the fury that
envelops Sweeney Todd and makes him a distant, vengeful serial killer.
The rest of the cast is quite adept in following suit. In particular, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan
Rickman. Playing Todd's partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, Carter displays darkened eyes, pouty lips,
and a petite, understated tone of voice that perfectly complements Sweeney's over-indulgent ways. And
on the antagonistic side, Rickman plays the devilish Judge Turpin with delicious debauchery, scolding
and banishing the young Hope, while showcasing a little vocal eccentricity in "Pretty Women."
Like the discovery of Mrs. Lovett's secret ingredient, "Sweeney Todd" has a callous, unsettling
taste. With blood oozing through stone pores and catacombs beneath Fleet Street, the story ends right
where it began. Structurally sound, it focuses almost exclusively on Sweeney Todd and his inner demons;
however, such direction is noticeably one sided, where no resolution is given to supporting characters
like Anthony Hope, Johanna, and Tobias - characters who float in and out of the story as plot devices
in Sweeney's vengeful scheme.
Nevertheless, Tim Burton's depiction of "Sweeney Todd" is quite the spectacle. With arguably the finest
score from Sondheim, an exquisite production design imagined by Dante Ferretti, and a stand out performance
by Johnny Depp in the lead role, both as an actor and a vocalist, the film is filled with memorable moments
of sweeping sorrow. The bloodiest musical ever made, "Sweeney Todd" lends itself to Burton's imagination,
unrelentingly grim and downbeat. After all, for tragic characters like Sweeney, the future is unshakably
bleak, especially when all one sees is "a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the
world inhabit it."