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  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Directed by: Tim Burton

Produced by: Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes, John Logan, Richard D. Zanuck

Written by: John Logan

Distributor: DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures


     If Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street does anything revolutionary, it’s that the picture allows filmgoers to see the result of director Tim Burton finally being permitted to physically depict his usual set of unrelentingly violent themes. Burton has long been a filmmaker associated with violence, despite the fact that he has never tackled truly gruesome material (aside from Sleepy Hollow, which seemed too classical to be deemed “graphic”) before making this movie. Viewers merely had to imagine the metaphysical violence implied between Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Batman and the Joker, and Pee-wee Herman and (I suppose) his Audience. But—fear not—Sweeney Todd allows Burton to work out any repressed tendencies that he may have felt when making his previous films. The corpses stack up and the blood flies.

     How disappointing that, handed such creative freedom, Burton has essentially made the most boring film of his entire career. Sweeney Todd may be horrifically violent—even I cringed at a particular montage involving one head being severed after another—but it’s also lacking any provocative edge to speak of because it is so utterly redundant. Once the shock initially thrust upon the viewer by the film’s outrageous premise wears off, there really isn’t anything especially engaging about the film. To compensate for its stunning blandness, the picture tries to wow the viewer by being a visual wonder, but cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s nearly-colorless vision for Sweeney Todd only works to further the viewer’s disinterest in the trite material.

     The barber of a protagonist is played by Johnny Depp, who, along with also-engaging co-star Helena Bonham Carter, injects Sweeney Todd with nearly every one of the few faint signs of life that it displays. While he does not deliver the Oscar-quality work that many have rumored of, Depp certainly nails the difficult task of making Sweeney both a sympathetic main character and a terrifying villain. Sweeney’s tortured back-story certainly helps this cause. In the film’s first scene, he has just escaped from an undeserved prison-sentence handed down to him by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Turpin sent Sweeney away in order to steal Sweeney’s wife from him. When he gets tired of her, Turpin sets his lustful sights on his new ward, Sweeney’s beloved daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener).

     Once he discovers of what Turpin did while he was away, Sweeney vows to murder Turpin and bring an end to Turpin’s abuse of power. He plots to do this, using the weathered and unrecognizable appearance that jail cast upon him as his disguise, by encouraging Turpin to stop by his shop for a shave and then slaying Turpin with his razorblade. Much to Sweeney’s disdain, things don’t go as planned. Despite restoring his name as the best shaver in all of London (after a head-to-head challenge with Sacha Baron Cohen’s since-reigning champ, Signor Adolfo Pirelli), Sweeney’s service is doubted by Turpin in an unfortunate encounter between them. Sweeney must resort to reformulating his plan of attack and, in the meantime, goes on a killing spree of his clientele. His victims’ remains, of course, are grinded and injected right into the meat pies of cohort Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter), who runs a pub just under Sweeney’s shop.

     It should be noted, of course, that the film was adapted from a beloved Broadway musical, and that composer Stephen Sondheim’s musical numbers are crucial to the story. Burton does a serviceable job of capturing the joy of the songs, which usually offer reprieve to the story’s non-stop moroseness. Regardless, these can’t help but feel restrained in their recorded state. I suspect that much of the delight of seeing Sweeney Todd onstage was the viewer’s involvement in the live music. Because this actor-audience connection is missing from the movie, the movie can’t help but seem bland in its straightforwardness. The material may have been a spectacle on Broadway because of the involvement provoked by the lyrics and melodies; Burton’s film needs something more in order for it to achieve this status, and it regrettably never finds it.

     I am likely coming down a bit hard on Sweeney Todd because of the expectations that I had for it given its notable pedigree. After all, its source is much-admired, its director always manages to be intriguing (even when he fails), and its lead actor was the perfect choice for the role of the protagonist – how could I not have expected something magnificent? Unfortunately, I fear that this version of Sweeney Todd just wasn’t meant to succeed: the movie’s small pleasures never overcome its one-note execution. Burton may have gotten his chance to make a film as repulsive and spine-tingling as he could’ve possibly hoped, but it certainly didn’t turn out to be anything worth talking about.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.24.2007

Screened on: 12.22.2007 at the Edwards San Marcos 18 in San Marcos, CA.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is rated R and runs 117 minutes.

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