Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
It is a curious fact that because of the way that the film was marketed and due the public's propensity for assumption, many people did not realise that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was in fact a musical upon its release. I find this strange, but then again not everyone is like me and shows the same degree of interest in cinema. It would appear that not everyone reads reviews or does any preliminary research on a movie before committing to watch it. Often viewers will make a snap decision based on the casting of a particular actor. Sometimes a film’s poster and promotional art can entice the public to take a punt on a movie. I must admit, I would be most interested to establish exactly what it was that some viewers were expecting in the case of Sweeney Todd. But then again, considering director Tim Burton’s body of work, that's a somewhat paradoxical question.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the story of Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a barber, wrongly sentenced to a life of hard labour in Australia by debauched Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who covets Barker's wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly). Returning 15 years later, having escaped the Penal Colony, Barker adopts the alias of Sweeney Todd and says goodbye to his friend, sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), who rescued him from the sea. He then returns to his old flat above Nellie Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop on Fleet Street. She tells him that after his arrest Turpin raped his wife, and she poisoned herself out of humiliation. Turpin then took Barker's daughter Johanna in as his ward. After receiving this news, Todd vows revenge and reopens his barber shop in the upstairs flat. Throats are cut, corpses disposed of and pie sales increase!
This "Gothic" tale of revenge and cannibalism certainly lends itself to the big screen. It has been filmed several times before, with the 1936 version starring the aptly named Todd Slaughter being the most memorable. Yet the version that Tim Burton has chosen to bring to the big screen is Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical. It was this fact that seems to have been downplayed in the studio's advertising campaign. As to why, it’s not really clear. Burton’s quirky films still manage to find and audience. If they weren’t confident that such a musical would be successful, then why exactly did they finance such a project? Irrespective of these questions, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street works extremely well. Surprising as it may seem, the story lends itself very well to musical interpretation. The songs are very morose, bleak and bitter. However, they reflect the narrative perfectly and the lead stars perform them exceptionally well.
Mr. Depp exhibits an interesting vocal style that is reminiscent of both David Bowie and Anthony Newley. As usual with Tim Burton's work, the production design and costumes are very stylised and influenced by German Expressionism. There is also a very strong moral subtext to the entire proceedings that isn't necessarily the one you'd expect it to be. At time the tone seems more befitting of opera. I wholeheartedly recommend it. However, I would add as a proviso, only if you like the director’s previous work or have a love of the baroque, unusual and violent. The casual viewer should otherwise best avoid it, especially if they are not a fan of such off-kilter musicals.