It’s easy to write off Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as simply an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and
Hugh Wheeler’s musical of the same name. That is, until you actually see it.
In the hands of Burton and his excellent cast and crew, “Sweeney Todd” takes on a life of its own. I’ve never seen the musical and had I
not known of it’s existence, wouldn’t have known it was based on material made for the stage.
John Logan’s screenplay seamlessly presents the story and songs (and yes, there are a lot of them) in a way that doesn’t try to be slavishly
true to the original version. At a lean 117 minutes, the film has had serious cuts from the stage version, but doesn’t feel like it’s missing a
thing to the first time viewer.
All this is enhanced by Burton’s energetic and visually stunning direction. Burton has always been one of the most exciting directors in
terms of visual storytelling, and he outdoes himself here. I don’t think anyone has more fun with fatal neck wounds than he does in this film.
But as well-written and directed as the film is, it wouldn’t work without a cast capable of such outlandish material and, of course, singing.
Johnny Depp plays the title role of Sweeney Todd and I’d be stunned if his performance doesn’t earn him an Oscar nod. His singing voice is
surprisingly good and no one fits the Burton style better than Depp.
There are also excellent supporting performances by the always entertaining Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall; not to mention a hilarious bit
with Sacha Baron “Borat” Cohen as a rival barber.
Perhaps the only member of the cast who doesn’t absolutely own their role is Helena Bonham Carter. Her performance is serviceable, but
not quite as memorable as the rest.
It should be noted that the film is absolutely gruesome and dark, even by Burton standards. And although it is played for comedy, the movie
is downright disgusting at times. This isn’t really a criticism as much as a warning. This is not your typical musical.
Luckily the stylized (and excellent) cinematography and art direction keep the film out of the realm of realism, avoiding some potentially
serious tone issues. Kids being beaten and sentenced to hangings isn’t an easy thing to laugh at, but it works pretty well as a super dark
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is nothing less than a triumph. This is a cast and crew that are at the top of their game
in almost every regard and working from excellent source material. For my money, this is one of Burton’s best films, if not the best. This is
an extremely entertaining and well-made film that I highly recommend. Oh, and the music is pretty good too.
* * * *
(out of four)
THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan
Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
Cinematography by: Dariusz Wolski
Music by: Stephen Sondheim
Released: December 21, 2007; 116 Minutes