Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
In the late seventeen hundreds, there was a scandal in London's Fleet Street when it was discovered that a local barber had been slicing the throats of his victims, and giving the bodies to a local pie shop owner. From the grisly event came the legend of a murderous barber named Sweeney Todd...
Through the looming fog comes a ship bound for one of the ports in London, the ghostly buildings rising from the mist like caricatures against the darkening sky. The innocently optimistic Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) believes there is no greater place than London, but his high opinion is not shared by his sinister companion, Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp). Imprisoned unjustly because a local judge desired to make a mistress of his virtuous wife, Barker has spent the last fifteen years plotting his revenge. Traveling under an alias of Sweeney Todd, he returns to the meat pie shop beneath his former quarters and finds Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) still in residence, selling the "worst pies in London." Recognizing him beneath his dour demeanor, she offers to assist him in his revenge by returning his prized set of silver razors, leading him to re-open his barber shop in the hopes of attracting Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) as a client. Meanwhile, walking down a city street, Anthony comes across a vision of beauty in the form of Johanna (Jayne Wisener), perched like one of her pet birds in an upper window. His interest draws the unwanted attention of her guardian, Turpin, who threatens Anthony with violence if he attempts to rescue her from her imprisonment, and tosses him out onto the street after a beating from Turpin's friend Beadle (Timothy Spall).
Little does Anthony know that Johanna is all that remains of Barker's family, and the vengeance Barker has planned against Turpin will drown the streets of his beloved London in a river of blood... Trailers make this look like a horror film, but it is actually a big screen adaptation of the award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim, one of the most creative and talented composers of our time. Ninety percent of the film is sung, the rest patches of dialogue to help fill in the rest of the story, and while neither Carter nor Depp are professional singers, the earnest quality their voices lend make the audience unaware of that fact. Even if director Tim Burton has never tackled a musical before, there is one thing he knows how to do exceptionally well, and that is brooding period pieces. Sweeney Todd drips with as much gothic atmosphere as the blood seeping into the cobblestones.
Everything except flashbacks of happier times and the daydreams by Mrs. Lovett of a better life are filmed in a colorless palate... well, except for the blood, which is a grisly and vibrant red. The costume design is absolutely gorgeous, and for the first forty five minutes or so, audiences are seduced by the strength of the plot and the quirks of the characters before the violence begins. When it does kick in, the victims are numerous. I was prepared for the worst and while the violence is grotesque, it was not nearly as bad as I expected. The first hint we get that this is no ordinary musical is when a man is beaten senseless with a hot tea kettle. When that is not enough to end him, Todd cuts his throat with a great deal of gurgling and scarlet spray. We are shown six more similar murders during the reprise of the song "Johanna," interspersed with visions of Mrs. Lovett baking pies and Anthony wandering the streets of London. The bodies drop through a trapdoor to the stone floor of the basement with many a sickening crunch.
The goriest death is that of the judge, who is stabbed multiple times in the throat with a razor (blood sprays several feet, drenching Todd and even managing to darken the window above) and then has his throat cut. In the climax, two other characters share the same fate, but there is no spatter, just a "waterfall" effect that covers the floor around them in blood. Another character is burned alive. Mrs. Lovett and Todd are rid of the bodies by making them into pies, which become quite popular with customers. An entire song is devoted to the potential of serving up different victims from all walks of life. Toby finds a finger in one of the meat pies, leading him to the gruesome discovery of human remains piled under a tarp in the basement. There are several uses of the words s**t and "piss" in a musical number. It is implied but not shown that Turpin raped Johanna during a masked ball, during which onlookers stood by and laughed.
Overall, the film is brilliant. The actors are perfect, the music is astounding, the sets and costuming are fantastic. Somehow, we are not as horrified at the prospect of what happens to the bodies so much as concerned where Todd's madness will lead him -- and it is to a very dark place. The conclusion is grim, because the ultimate underlining message is that the wages of sin is death. Todd's desire for revenge causes him to lose what he might have had if he had chosen a different path. It is a profound message in a disturbing context, and even though the violence is deliberately overdone, nevertheless it makes it hard to recommend en masse. If you are a fan of the original musical, this film will no doubt entertain and please you because it is in most ways a masterpiece. But if you are merely looking for something cheery and new to watch in dismal weather, Sweeney Todd will not leave you with a smile on your face. There is nothing happy about this story, and while there is some dark humor to amuse, and a remarkable charm to its intentionally grungy surroundings, it is ultimately a dark and violent tale about the actions people take to destroy their lives. That being said, despite the gruesome deaths, I found it a masterpiece.