A Nightmare on Fleet Street
For those who recoil at the thought of watching a musical due to their bubbly nature, well let's be honest think musical and you think people singing and dancing to show tunes, should go and get themselves Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" because this is a musical vastly different from the norm. Adapted from Stephen Sondheim's production and featuring Sondheim's music and lyrics Burton's "Sweeney Todd" is a macabre affair and one which will take you aback at how visual it is, blood spurts and spurts and spurts. But it will also take you aback because whilst you may associate Tim Burton with the macabre this is not the energetic movie you might expect from him. In fact whilst we have various regular Burton collaborators including Johnny Depp and Helena Bonheim Carter, and a sense of dark merriment "Sweeney Todd" feels surprisingly different to your normal Burton movie.
15 years after being thrown in jail on false charges Benjamin Barker returns to London but he is no longer Benjamin but now Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp - Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) and he is looking for revenge for his time spent in side and the man he is after is Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman - Nobel Son) who having thrown him in jail stole his wife and his daughter. Having met pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter - Corpse Bride), Sweeney sets himself up as a barber above her shop waiting for his chance to slit the throat of Turpin and hopefully get back his daughter who lives with the Judge. But whilst waiting he also goes to work on anyone who dares come to his establishment for a shave, slitting their throats and disposing off their bodies via a trap door into the bakery where Mrs. Lovett uses their flesh in her pies.
The tale of "Sweeney Todd" goes back to the first half of the 19th century and since then has not only been a staple of literature but also been made into stage productions as well as movies. And along the way whilst the basis of the story is the same, Mr. Todd killing clients whilst Mrs. Lovett serving them up in meat pies the story has developed into what many people know it as now, thanks in part to Stephen Sondheim's popular production and now Tim Burton's movie. So whilst originally Todd's murdering was a case of greed, relieving his dead clients of their wares what we now have is murder driven by revenge for his unlawful incarceration by Judge Turpin and what happened to his wife and daughter as he spent 15 years in jail. It's a good storyline, which also has the added element of the relationship between Mr. Todd and Mrs. Lovett.
So that is the storyline and whilst I have never watched Sondheim's stage production I am lead to believe that Burton's movie is faithful to his vision. As such we have this dark movie, both visually and in narrative as we watch Sweeney Todd return to the cesspit of London looking for revenge on Judge Turpin for his life being ruined. But here is the thing, and it is one of my few criticisms, in the first 10 minutes we have the history delivered by a couple of musical numbers so we quickly learn that Mr. Todd used to be the happily married Benjamin Barker with a daughter but Judge Turpin fancied his wife Lucy and basically stole her from him. This means that for the next hour and 45 minutes we have a story which seems to spin its wheels as we wait for Sweeney to get his revenge. It's entertaining but it seems so drawn out and almost out of balance.
But that issue is really the only major quibble as everything else about "Sweeney Todd" works and one of the first things which hits you is the dreary palette which Burton uses. This is a dark, dirty world which Burton has created and in some ways feels like it has come out of one of his stop animation movies. But whilst dark it is also amusing as we meet the various characters and experience the worst pies in London thanks to Mrs. Lovett. It is that mix of being macabre but also strangely amusing which makes watching this dark tale so much fun.
It is also of course the various musical numbers which have come out of Sondheim's production which also ad to the fun as whilst they are dark they are surprisingly catchy. From the syncopated rhythms through to the twisted lyrics these morbid tunes are in fact surprisingly lively, a contradiction but a good one. And to be honest these songs are well delivered by the cast especially Depp and Carter whose slightly roughness makes them sound even better, less polished and professional.
Talking of Depp and Carter you get the sort of performance you expect from both of them, dark, slightly quirky, very visual yet also at times quite minimilistic with the smallest of details making them interesting. For example Depp as Sweeney often has moments of quietness but the entire time you can feel the inner rage just by the fire in Depp's eyes. These are by no means Depp and Carter's best performances but they are perfect for this movie and so to be honest so are the performances of the rest of the cast be it the comical Pirelli played by Sacha Baron Cohen or the evil Judge Turpin played by Alan Rickman.
Now of course the tale of "Sweeney Todd" is macabre as we have him killing his clients and Tim Burton seems to get great satisfaction from the visuality of Todd's murders. To put it simply you see throats get slit, you see a lot of blood spurt and you can feel their necks break as they fall back through the trap door on to the hard floor of the bakery. But it is also the way Burton toys with us heightening are level of expectation for when Todd takes his first victim and he doesn't disappoint. And Burton most certainly doesn't disappoint when bringing things to a close in a spectacular but fittingly abrupt manner.
What this all boils down to is that "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a spectacular modern musical and nothing life you would expect when you hear the words musical. This is a dark, macabre tale which is also strangely amusing and very very visual.