Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Well I have to admit, this was a pleasant surprise.  I mean, as pleasant as a movie about people getting their throats cut could be.

I sat down to watch this movie, knowing only that it was a musical, composed by Stephen Sondheim, an artist whom I rarely think about, some sort of black-comedic Victorian revenge drama, directed by Tim Burton and featuring a cast that promised a Pirates of the Caribbean/Harry Potter smackdown, with a guest appearance by Borat.

First I was surprised by Johnny Depp, who gives his most sincere, honest performance ever in a Burton movie. Whatever he’s doing in Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I’m sure is amusing to someone, but I’ve never quite understood it myself. But here he’s just smashing, committed and balanced and strong. Then I was surprised to learn that I like his singing, which in this movie reminds me of a record I have of David Bowie singing Brecht.

I also like Helena Bonham Carter in this movie, although I have a lingering question with regards to her choices as an actress. She made her name playing period roles in Merchant-Ivory movies (and their imitators), and then about ten years ago, around the time of The Wings of the Dove, suddenly seemed to make the decision that she wasn’t ever going to play another high-buttoned collar part again in her life. No, she decided, she was going to spend the next decade playing slatterns, psychos and witches. Which, more power to her, but there’s something about a beautiful, refined, obviously strong woman like her playing a character as bizarre, needy, manipulative and amoral as Mrs. Lovett. It’s my understanding that Angela Lansbury played the part on Broadway a million years ago, when she was merely “old” and not “as old as dirt.” Which seems to make a lot more sense to me — Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett shouldn’t be young, robust, good-looking people who could attract anyone in London, they should be broken, over-the-hill, ruined, bitter people who’ve been around the block more than a few times (Sweeney, in fact, arrives from having traveled around the world). We’re supposed to believe that Mrs. Lovett has loved Todd since before his wife and child were taken from him, which has to be at least fifteen years, but Mrs. Lovett in this movie doesn’t seem to be that much older than Todd’s daughter.

Alan Rickman, however, blew me away, as did Sacha Baron Cohen, who managed to get all kinds of levels of play into his few scenes.

I have no idea what, if anything, has been changed to get the play onto the screen, but they did a terrific job. The plotting keeps the story engrossing, suspenseful and surprising, the production design is extraordinary (as it generally is for a Burton movie) and the hairdos alone should make it a lock for the makeup Oscar. And not just because they are clever (although they are), but because of the way they are actually integrated into the scenery around them — they look as though they were not meant to merely reveal character, but to be shown as a symptom and product of their environment.

And then there’s Burton’s direction, which, well, it seems strange to say it, but I think this is the best work he’s done. I’ve enjoyed plenty of Tim Burton movies in the past, but there was always some weird distancing thing going on, some kind of glibness or archness or lack of depth that always made them seem a little hollow. This movie, like Depp’s performance, seems honest and deeply felt in a way that a “deeply felt” movie like, say, Big Fish did not. To put it another way, I always knew that Tim Burton was a great artist, but this was the first time I felt like he had actually gotten in touch with the human side of his art as well as the technical side.

Which I guess sounds weird, because it’s hard to think of a less human, less organic construct than an almost-sung-through musical about an insane barber and how he slaughters people to feed a grudge. And yet, as my wife said about half-way through the movie, “It’s really good that these people all got together to make this,” because it’s hard to imagine another group of people understanding the material as well as this bunch.

Todd and Lovett, of course, make two more wonderful addition to this year’s unrivaled crop of movieland’s murderous capitalists, in addition to There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview, No Country For Old Men‘s Chigurh, Eastern Promises‘s Russian ganglord and Michael Clayton‘s homicidal corporate climber. The fact that all these roles have not only appeared in the same year but have been nominated for Oscars has got to say something about the state of our Union.

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7 Responses to “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
  1. black13 says:

    The movie is about one hour shorter than the play. The play also tells the story of Antony and Johanna, the movie reduces that to what of that is actually relevant to Sweeney Todd’s story. Steven Sondheim rewrote the songs himself to fit the new format (he worked closely with John Logan), and supposedly also used the opportunity to change a few things in the songs with which he hadn’t been entirely happy before (but that may be myth).

    I enjoyed the movie as well.

  2. mattyoung says:

    Absolutely beautiful still at the top of the post, too.

    This film was what we saw on Christmas Day, in a New Hampshire only mildly freezing, and it was perfect in a weird way. I agree that it not only seemed more human than a musical by Tim Burton had any right to be, but more well-rounded in its emotions. When the film ends (um, sorta-SPOILER) so abruptly, along with Todd’s story, I was angry at first and then left with a strangely sad but not-pitying sympathy – that the whole company delivered right down my throat so subtly I didn’t even realize it was down until I recognized the taste was left in my mouth.

    I’ll add to my reasons to see the rest of the Oscar movies this year “commentary on the bloodied origins of capitalism.” Which seems like a very interesting topic for future essays…

  3. kornleaf says:

    did you ever see the origional stage version?

      • kornleaf says:

        It was one of my favorite musicals and the film version stayed fairly true to it, cut out only a few songs and made it a bit bloodyier.

        With the staging of the play they had it so that you could see both sweeny’s room and the downstairs and every time a body dropped you could follow its path.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    I really loved this one. Now I want some pie.

  5. memento_mori says:

    I was shocked to love this move, even more so that I called it my favorite film of the year!