Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Year of Release: 2007     Directed by Tim Burton.  Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, and Ed Sanders.

With the opening credits, director Tim Burton captures the dark, foreboding aura of Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and it is clear that the film is in good hands.  As the camera focuses on Todd’s barber shop, a trickle of blood flows across the screen with the credits appearing next to it.  The blood flows down the walls, into the basement, down into the sewers, and out into a London harbor.  Meanwhile through this entire sequence the orchestra plays an instrumental version of Sondheim’s ominous “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”  The small stream of blood and the rooms devoid of people foreshadow the storyline of Sondheim’s musical that shows the evil of revenge.

The camera follows the blood into a harbor, and the mood of the music changes as the blood is diluted in the water.  The comforting song, “There’s no Place Like London,” begins as the young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) sings of his joy at returning home.  Along with him is the less than enthusiastic Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), who is returning home for the first time in fifteen years.  Formerly a barber named Benjamin Barker, he has changed his name since he was supposed to be exiled for life.  Todd is clearly bitter, anxious, and preoccupied stating, “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 pig could spit/And it goes by the name of London.”  He expresses his gratitude to Anthony for rescuing him from drowning, but walks off, ignoring Anthony’s extended hand.

Todd gives some reason for his bitterness, singing “There was a Barber and his Wife,” whose blissful marriage was destroyed by a lecherous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who exiled the barber in order to satiate his lust for the wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly).  But his knowledge ends there, and he seeks out his old neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, (Helena Bonham Carter) to finish the story.  When she informs him that after the Judge exiled the barber, he then raped the wife and raised the daughter (Jayne Wisener) as his own, Todd gives himself away through his emotions.  Once she recognizes him, she informs him Lucy poisoned herself.  At this point, Todd vows he will destroy the Judge and his equally malevolent assistant Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).  Mrs. Lovett had saved his razors which she then returns to him, so he can be a barber again.  When she returns the razors, Todd begins his quest for revenge.

Sondheim has said that one of the reasons he was attracted to story of Sweeney Todd was that he wished to show the evil of revenge, which he said he believes is a universal evil.  Many people claim to be forgiving, but when faced with a grave evil, personified by Judge Turpin in the film, the notion of an “eye of an eye” often wins out.  Refusing to forgive is unhealthy, and the film clearly shows Todd’s obsession with revenge leads to his descent from bitterness to hatred to insanity.  The dark dream sequence of “Epiphany” and the warped obsession of Todd’s “Joanna” are brilliantly filmed.  Although gory, the scene in which Todd thinks he has succeeded reveals that he has turned into what he set out to destroy, which the following scene confirms.

The Oscar winning set design and art direction splendidly reinforce the tragic consequences of Todd’s choices.  The vibrant red-orange blood copiously gushes over the bleak sets that are composed of dull blues, browns, and grays.  As Todd removes himself further from the world and from his daughter, the only joy of his life is reveling in bloodshed.  The two alternating chords of “Johanna” represent Todd’s actions that are mechanically driven by his obsession with revenge.  He does not realize how revenge has replaced his daughter as the light of his life.  He sings that he is a loving father, while casually ending the lives of other fathers.  The blood serves to reinforce his shifting priorities.

The film is well cast.  Depp is sullen and brooding, and he portrays the insanity and hatred of Todd well.  His singing is not Broadway quality, but it is good enough for a film, especially since he acts the songs so well, reminding the audience that the music and lyrics are meant to complement the story and not overshadow it.  Jayne Wisener portrays the innocence and longing of Joanna well.  Her solo, “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” is a vivid contrast to the darkness of Todd’s world.  Bonham Carter is good as the quirky, sinister Mrs. Lovett.  She captures the comedy of “The Worst Pies in London,” the cunning of “Not While I’m Around,” and the selfishness of “By the Sea” very well.  Alan Rickman is superb as Judge Turpin.  Although the Judge’s solo, which gives him humanity as he struggles to repent, was cut from the film, Rickman is a skilled enough actor to show that the Judge is a deeply flawed human being, not a monster.

The same can be said for all the characters.  The audience is privileged to understand the flawed mentality of these people and is shown how their choice to sin destroys them.  One sin leads to others, and Todd is soon killing many more people than just the Judge and the Beadle.  Mrs. Lovett’s choice to be infatuated with a married man and to make advances towards him leads to her assistance with Todd’s bloody work.  Tim Burton has done an excellent job of bringing Sondheim’s musical to the silver screen.  Attend this tale of Sweeney Todd.

Content Advisory: The focus on blood at the beginning of the film is indicative of the graphic, bloody violence that this film contains.  The violence is brief and is not presented as glamorous, but as part of a twisted man’s obsession.  There is implied cannibalism, an off-screen rape, some off-color humor, underage drinking, and a couple vulgarities.                       MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment (mature teens might be okay with it)

Personal Recommendation: A+

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