Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

What’s black and white and red all over? Why, Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd, of course.
The Sweeney Todd story has a long history, actually, dating back to at least 1846. He was originally just a crazed serial killer, a London urban legend who nibbled on his victims — sort of an early Jack the Ripper. But that’s not the kind of role they could get Johnny Depp to play, I suppose, so the film goes with the Stephen Sondheim musical version, based on a 1973 update by Christopher Bond. This adds in the vengeance angle — in a totally Count of Monte Cristo way, young barber Benjamin Barker is convicted of false charges by a judge who lusts after Mrs. Barker. With Mr. Barker transported to Australia, the judge swoops in, claiming both wife and baby daughter for his own. But Barker returns, reborn as Sweeney Todd, and determines to get even. He doesn’t find any huge stash of treasure like the Count did, though.
The judge is Alan Rickman, and he actually does sing a little, and he’s pretty good. Johnny Depp sings a lot, and he does all right, too. And Helena Bonham Carter, as Mrs. Lovett, sings too, in between squishing roaches with her rolling pin and making what she herself calls the worst pies in London. The point is, there’s lots and lots of singing, so be warned. Even minor characters frequently break into song at the drop of a hat, and I know that can be kind of jarring.
The other jarring thing, of course, is the blood. There’s more blood than there is singing, I think, and though none of it looks terribly real, it still means this movie isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. I mean, it is about a man murdering people with a straight razor, so youve got to expect that, but Tim Burton doesn’t pull the punches, either –not that I would have expected him to. All the blood’s right out there for everyone to see. I kept wondering how in the world Sweeney could clean it all up so fast and so completely, because if his barbershop was as covered with blood as it really should have been given what he was up to, everyone would have run screaming at the sight. Instead they all just kept wandering in obediently to get their throats cut. I lost count.

Mr. Todd sings a love song to his razors, and Mrs. Lovett sings a love song to him.

Mrs. Lovett was landlady and friend to the Barkers in happier days, and always had a fondness for Mr. Barker, so she has no problem helping Mr. Todd with his murderous revenge now. But the judge still has daughter Johanna Barker, now a beautiful young lady, in his clutches, and he keeps her basically locked up in his house, sewing and singing. This was pretty much the fate of all well-to-do young ladies in Victorian London, but everyone wants to rescue her just the same, especially after the judge proposes marriage. In true musical tradition, you see, Johanna has fallen in love with the young sailor lurking outside her house, staring up at her admiringly. I would call that stalking myself, but she throws him the key to the house, and he immediately begins planning how best to spirit her away.
Knowing few people in London, young Anthony turns to a man he met on the voyage from Australia — none other than Mr. Todd — and that’s when things really get messy, in more ways than one. Sweeney agrees to help, but things only get worse and worse, and the body count only gets higher and higher. Just because everyone sings doesn’t mean it’s a happy film.
In fact, except for some flashback scenes and the almost painful Technicolor of Mrs. Lovett’s fever dreams of a quiet life by the seaside for her and Mr. Todd, the whole film looks like Sleepy Hollow, with that sort of washed-out, greyish color, like an old photograph that was tinted long ago. Everything looks faded and depressed, even the lush surroundings of the judge’s house, smoke hangs everywhere, and it generally looks like a terribly unhealthy place to live — so it’s Victorian London to a T.
Anyway, four idols here. It is thoroughly gruesome, and just may have turned me into a vegetarian, but it’s so well-acted and put together I can forgive it all the blood. Everyone goes completely over the top (especially Sacha Baron Cohen as competing barber and extremely flashy dresser Signor Pirelli) but they’re all having such fun it works perfectly, and I was a little uneasy even when I was laughing. Even while Mr. Todd and the judge are singing what seems like a sweet duet about the charms of pretty women, there’s still that blade lurking and creeping you out. I’m just glad someone invented the safety razor.