Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Revenge is a dish best served in short-crust pastry.

Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 

An R-rated cannibalistic slasher movie might seem like an unlikely vehicle for an ode to family values, but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (DreamWorks Pictures) is a defense of marriage. Plus, it’s riddled with deceit—a keystone of family life. The movie’s baroque story is set in motion by a cruel deed: Corrupt Judge Turpin sends rosy-cheeked barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) to Australia on trumped-up charges so that he can get his hands on Barker’s wife, Lucy, and baby, Johanna. Fifteen years later, Barker, now pallid and sporting a Susan Sontag stripe in his hair, escapes and returns to London.

Assuming the name Sweeney Todd, he goes to see his former landlady Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), the proprietor of an unsavory meat-pie shop in Fleet Street. Lovett recognizes Barker and tells him that his wife took poison after being raped by the judge, who is now Johanna’s guardian. She reunites him with his razors, and he sets up a tonsorial parlor above her premises, all the while plotting revenge. Wondering how to dispose of the body of Adolfo Pirelli, a rival barber whose throat he slashed when Pirelli threatened to expose Todd’s true identity, Mrs. Lovett suggests that they turn him—and the gents who come to his shop for a shave—into pies. Once Sweeney Todd tastes blood, the operatic plot moves swiftly toward Götterdämmerung.

The widowed Mrs. Lovett, who always had a fondness for the barber, has hopes of forming a new family with Todd, whose beautiful silver razors she kept safely stowed during his long absence. In the heart-breaking duet “My Friends,” Mrs. Lovett offers herself to him, but he only has eyes for his blades when he sings, “Come let me hold you. Now, with a sigh, you grow warm in my hand.”

Oh, yes, sings. Sweeney Todd is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical, and for all but about 10 minutes of the two-hour movie, the actors express their often disturbing emotions in song. Listening to Sondheim is a little like experiencing Shakespeare—at first it’s strange, but regular spoken English soon seems anemic.

Depp and Bonham-Carter don’t have voices that would fill a Broadway house, but they don’t need them. In the movies, it’s technology, not technique, that counts—the two actors don’t have to belt out the songs so the folks in the balcony can hear them over the orchestra, and they don’t need the stamina to do eight shows per week with no second chances to hit notes or to negotiate Sondheim’s complicated meter. The role of Sweeney Todd was written for a bass baritone, but Depp’s rock-star tenor is so gravelly and expressive that he doesn’t sound like a lightweight. Bonham-Carter’s voice is thin, but she acts the part convincingly. Listen again to the cast recording of the original 1979 production—Angela Lansbury sings the role in a raucous, comic Cockney bray.

As pale and slight as Bonham-Carter is—she seems to carry half her weight in her bosom—she anchors the movie. Mrs. Lovett’s songs are the toughest in the score, and she’s the most important character: an enabler, a co-conspirator, and a bit of a Lady Macbeth. Sweeney resists Mrs. Lovett’s happy-family fantasy—his mind is set on retribution, and his eyes are always focused in the distance. Although Depp plays Sweeney as detached and contemptuous, it’s those eyes that keep his character sympathetic. Alan Rickman is perfectly cast as Judge Turpin—drunk on power, evil with the vulnerability of the dim-witted—and, in a movie full of effective but not necessarily pretty voices, his dulcet tones seem more gorgeous than ever. As Turpin’s sidekick and procurer Beadle Bamford, Timothy Spall, with his rodentlike teeth, is so smarmy that he’s virtually self-lubricating.

Director Tim Burton understands that movies are far more intimate than theater—even the deconstructed 2005 Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, where 10 actors multitasked as musicians, seems overpopulated compared with this film. You have to be up-close and personal to cut someone’s throat, and Burton creates a Victorian London that’s dark and claustrophobic.

In trimming down the three-hour musical, screenwriter John Logan excised most of the chorus scenes and the quartets and slimmed Johanna’s and Anthony’s parts. Perhaps he should’ve wielded the knife with a little less gusto. In the musical, Anthony the sailor is a romantic optimist, an essential foil for gloomy Todd. Without the songs that establish his love for Sweeney’s daughter, Anthony’s declaration, “I’ll steal you, Johanna,” when all he’s done is stare at her from afar, doesn’t seem all that different from Judge Turpin coveting Lucy Barker. The casting also seems misguided. Jamie Campbell Bower is preposterously pretty for the role of the chivalrous sailor—with his flowing blond locks and full lips, he wouldn’t get much sleep at sea—and Jayne Wisener doesn’t have the voice to sell “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” Johanna’s sad song of captivity. She seems more like a China doll than a caged bird.

Burton instructed his director of photography to strip color from the film, rendering it almost black-and-white—except, of course, for all that blood. Once Sweeney starts his homicidal streak, his barber chair becomes a veritable gusher of the red stuff. Somehow, though, the endless arterial blood spray has a vaguely Monty Python-ish quality. In our antiseptic, food-safety-obsessed times, Mrs. Lovett’s vermin-infested pie shop and her highly unsanitary food-preparation techniques seem far scarier. Burton’s overall restraint is a welcome surprise. Shorn of his usual camp trappings, the director evokes a sadness beneath every uneasy smile he draws from the audience. Sweeney Todd isn’t Edward Scissorhands, a misfit tragically misunderstood by his neighbors, he’s a man driven mad by injustice.