Halloween Party: Sweeney Todd-The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Here’s one from the “why hasn’t Blake already watched this?” category. I’m a big musical theater nerd. I’m a big fan of Stephen Sondheim. And I don’t have anything in particular against Johnny Depp. But somehow, I didn’t see the movie when it was released, and the DVD release escaped me until a few weeks ago, when the musical was featured on one of my favorite TV shows, The Office. Hearing some of the music performed there sort of reminded me that there was a movie version of this musical, so off to NetFlix I went.

The film, based of course on Sondheim’s play, features Johnny Depp as Benjamin Barker, a barber framed for a crime by a corrupt judge (portrayed brilliantly by Alan Rickman) who covets his wife. Barker returns home under an alias (“Sweeney Todd,” duh) 15 years later to find his wife gone and his daughter about to be forced into marriage by the same judge. Incensed at the corruption around him, Todd hatches a scheme with his downstairs neighbor Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) to dispatch the well-to-do of London.

The musical itself truly is remarkable. with some of Sondheim’s most complex, memorable themes and lyrics. I haven’t been able to stop myself from singing “Johanna” at random moments since I saw the film. The story, too, is wonderfully constructed. Todd begins the tale as a victim, as an innocent person who seeks a rather justifiable revenge and goes really, really overboard. Also, he murders Sasha Baron Cohen, which is something most of us have contemplated at one time or another.

The performances in the film are good too — Rickman is always a masterful performer, and Timothy Spall practically recreates his persona from the Harry Potter film, playing the judge’s flunky. Depp and Carter, of course, are cast in this movie because it seems director Tim Burton is now physically incapable of making a film without either of them. Sometimes this really works, sometimes it doesn’t. This one treads the line, but in the end, it’s a successful combination. Depp isn’t a powerhouse, bravura singer, but his persona is perfect for Sweeney Todd, and his pitch and tone sell the part in an understated way. Carter isn’t bad either, although she can’t really belt out her part the way you sense it was intended to be played.

The visuals are really great. Tim Burton’s stamp on a movie is always unmistakable — you can look at a movie and tell he directed it in about 30 seconds. This time, that thumbprint of his is perfect. The colors are very subdued, almost sepia toned, with a few exceptions. Cohen’s character’s garish costume stands out, as it should, and with every death the splash of red leaps out against the rest of the darker characters and backgrounds.

I enjoyed this a lot. I’ve got to see the stage show now, if for no other reason than to see what songs got left out.

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October 2010

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