December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

How much did you say you were going to tip me?

Grade: B +
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen
Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street marks the sixth collaboration between director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, but only two of their previous efforts seem especially apropos. First, this is arguably Burton’s best film since their second effort, Ed Wood. Moreover, Sweeney Todd marks the second time – along with Edward Scissorhands – in which Depp has portrayed a tortured psyche brandishing bladed phalanges.

If Edward’s scissorhands were the catalyst for his sexual isolation, however, Sweeney’s proxy phalli compensate for a manhood stripped away by an influential judge (Alan Rickman) who falsely imprisons the titular barber (original name Benjamin Barker) so the judge can rape Sweeney’s wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and then rear the fruit of Sweeney’s loins – his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) – into a future consort. Indeed, the seemingly contrived lyrics to My Friends, ostensibly Sweeney’s ode to his long-lost straight-razors, finally make sense when heard for their double-entendre nuance.

For his first musical, Burton astutely juxtaposes Stephen Sondheim’s melodic score and loaded lyrics against a Grand Guignol backdrop: slit throats and gushing crimson amidst the gothic “great black pit” of Victorian London's "world of shit"and "vermin of the world [that] inhabit it.” As Sweeney’s patrons become unwitting participants in his Freudian temper tandrum, their remains are dumped downstairs to be ground into Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) meat pies, whose new-found popularity with the masses portends capitalism’s cannibalistic impulses, a metaphor for the haves feeding off the have-nots.

Depp’s lack of a prototypical Broadway singing voice actually succeeds by not overpowering the Burton's remarkably intimate setting, complimented by Depp's brooding visage and a frizz (and mania) borrowed from Bride of Frankenstein. What remains lacking is a sense of transition and motivation. Burton does not effectively elucidate why Sweeney redirects his hatred for Judge Turbin toward hapless customers; glints of generalized madness fall flat and undercut any attempt to assign import to Sweeney’s ghoulish self-therapy.

Still, while not a tightly-woven character study or the feel-good hit of the holiday season, Sweeney Todd is part opera, part graphic novel, and, yes, part comedy – in By the Sea, Lovett imagines an idyllic life with Sweeney, far removed from dank London Town but never her beau’s dead eyes. She daydreams family beach outings with the kids; he can’t wait to get back to his strop and rasour. Ironically, our alpha-male avenger is ultimately felled by a youngster who, in exacting his own oedipal retribution, turns Sweeney’s metaphorical member against him to avenge slaying the boy’s surrogate mother. It’s all a bloody show, but also a bloody good one.

Neil Morris

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