They say revenge is a dish that is best served cold. Well, this new movie argues the opposite, that revenge is in fact a yummy, hotly-served meatpie. Take a bite. Only be careful. Your tongue might taste the dirt under the nails of an unground human finger.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is the adaptation of the hit Broadway show by Stephen Sondheim, a Broadway show that boasted such lyrics as "For what's the sound of the world out there? / Those crunching noises pervading the air! / It's man devouring man, my dear! / And who are we to deny it in here?"
Johnny Depp stars as Sweeney Todd, the super barber whose skills at shaving are apparently unmatched in all of London. He's referred to as "a proper artist with a knife." He can swipe a man's face and neck to its utmost smoothness in seconds flat. Yet, sadly, he uses his skills not just to groom respectable British chaps. Yes, he does give merry men of England the closest shave they'll ever see but also the last shave they'll ever see. Sweeney is simply a serial killer, a serial slasher, making the necks of many men smile a blood red.
In his epiphany, Sweeney sings, "There's a hole in the world like a great big pit / ...And the vermin of the world inhabit it / But not for long /They all deserve to die... / You sir, you sir? Welcome to the grave / I will have vengeance..." This curse-filled, dark, demented, and evil song comes across so ghastly and terrifying. Yet, it's also very captivating as Depp delivers not just the lyrics, but also the facial expressions to really sell this lurid tale.
Depp, who has appeared in over 30 films and used to front a few garage bands, has never had to sing in a movie before. This is perhaps his first, though director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas) doesn't hold back or even slowly build up it. No, the first five minutes, after the opening credits thrusts you right into the melody of Depp's voice as he harmonizes, "I have sailed the world, beheld its wonders..."
Depp's Sweeney steps into frame, his face filling the scene. His skin is powdered white. His eyes are blood shot. There are dark circles underneath and on his head a slightly sloppier "Bride of Frankenstein" hairstyle. He's standing on the deck of a ship and you think it a brilliant transition from Depp's previous role in Pirates of the Caribbean. You hear him belt out this tune, this Sondheim composition, and it doesn't distract. Within moments you're absorbed and not for a moment does his singing mis-step.
Helen Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, the meatpie maker who has taken over Sweeney's old barbershop and has turned it into a bakery, a bakery where the rolling pin she uses to knead the dough is the same instrument she uses to squash the cockroaches that have infested the place. Sweeney returns to the bakery after spending many years in prison, sentenced there by Judge Turbin, played with absolute maliciousness by Alan Rickman (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Mrs. Lovett sings to Sweeney the story of what happened while he was away. His wife was poisoned and his daughter kidnapped. Sweeney wants revenge.
Done with such good fun, this is not simply a sick celebration. The movie has a heartfelt, candy center. The dark, hard chocolate that surrounds is all the more sweet and richer because it's so dark, but once you get to the candy center, you appreciate it all the more. You also appreciate the cool cinematic techniques that Burton employs to get you through that dark, hard chocolate.
One of the most outstanding is Burton's constant use of filming people either in glass or through glass, forcing his characters either to face their reflections or look by way of their slightly distorted, refracted view of the world. Burton frequently has his characters looking out the window. There are also many shots of Sweeney looking into his razor blade or his barber's mirrors, one of which is cracked, Sweeney having to face his own shattered image of himself. There's even one clever shot after his epiphany where Sweeney has to stare at his visage captured in the ripples in a street puddle.
Burton, along with screenwriter John Logan, as reported by Jesse Green of The New York Times, cut many of the musical numbers to ensure that the film didn't feel like one long stage show transferred to the screen with all the limitations or stodginess that comes when something that's meant for the cinema pretends like it's still in the proscenium. Such was the failure of the recent adaptation of Mel Brooks' The Producers.
What they did with The Producers was try to simulate the Broadway experience, basically trying to replicate the stage show almost exactly for the big screen, as if there were no difference between the two mediums. Big mistake! The two mediums are different. Burton, thankfully, doesn't make the same error. He instead opens up his story and expands it.
So much so, you don't even recognize the claustrophobia of all the central action that takes place in Sweeney's barber chair, booby-trapped to Mrs. Lovett's sinister bakery. Burton does for the barber chair what Hitchcock did for showers, also invoking the same anxiety and hopeful thrill encouraged by Steven Spielberg in The Color Purple, where in a crucial scene when Whoopi Goldberg's Celie had to shave the face of Danny Glover's Albert, there was a moment when everyone in the audience rooted for Celie to slit Albert's throat with the razor. Similarly, in an important instance between Johnny Depp's Sweeney and Alan Rickman's Turbin, Burton also gets us to root for a neck-opening homocide. It's brilliant, mostly because it's so well acted and sung.
And, besides playing with the richness of the color red, Burton and his cinematographer contrast the near black-and-white, gray shades of his main characters and drops them in the middle of a rainbow-medley fantasy set near a beach that literally splashes on the screen.
Another splash is the rival barber named Signor Pirelli, an Italian charlatan, played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. He looks like a Spanish bullfighter all dressed in blue, a bullfighter or perhaps the ringleader of a traveling circus. Pirelli is a flim flam, a con artist, who tries to sell bald men an elixir that Sweeney says, "smells like piss." Pirelli proceeds to show and sing to Sweeney how "to shave-a da face!"
The real scene-stealer, however, is Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford. Bamford is a short, pudgy man with a rat-like appearance and at times a rat-like behavior about him. He's Turbin's right hand enforcer, a man who takes air like he's a British gentleman, but really he's arrogant scum. What happens to him like the ending of this film is one that stuck with me days after seeing it. Just as it will stick with you!
The film is about orphans, people detached from their bloodlines, their families, people who are motivated by loss, who are themselves lost, trying to grab hold of something, anything they can, things that aren't theirs. Many of them are desperate and lonely, cold and hollow on the inside. But, Burton isn't depressive nor does he depress his audience. Burton merely dances. He also engages those who watch to dance as well, to quote another Burton film, to "dance with the devil by the pale moonlight."
Not since the filmed stories of Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer have I been more excited about a movie's playful use of cannibalism. Yet, this story is not horror, nor is it a melodrama.
No, while you're watching a woman take the bodies of murdered victims, turn them into hamburger with a meat grinder, bake them in an oven that you'd likely find in a crematorium and then plop them on a plate for hungry British customers, you're not completely grossed out because you're also singing along to this very delightful musical comedy.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for graphic bloody violence.
Running Time: 1hr. and 56 mins.