December 27, 2007


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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (R)
Johnny Depp slashes his razor through the throats of the unshaven in 19th-century London while Helena Bonham Carter turns their remains into tasty meat pies in Sweeney Todd; The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, an all-singing, all-decapitating movie version of the musical.

A man calling himself Sweeney Todd (Depp) comes sulking into London on a ship returning home from foreign ports. As he tells us in song, Todd is not particularly thrilled to be home or terribly fond on London — “a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it” is how he describes it. The reason, as we learn, is that once he lived here and went by the name of Benjamin Barker. He had a beautiful wife and a beautiful baby girl and was blissfully happy until a man named Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) decided that he wanted Barker’s wife. As Todd learns when he visits a former neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), after Barker was locked up, Turpin takes advantage of Barker’s wife at a party and then, when she is out of the picture, he adopts their daughter Johanna.

Mrs. Lovett, who spends her time running the worst, most disgusting meat pie shop in London, recognizes Barker and, since she always had a bit of a crush on him, offers to let him have his room over her shop back and Todd, a real fan of barbering, decides to open up his barbershop again. Since he believes that his family is basically lost to him, he opts for revenge, hoping that he will eventually get Tupin in his chair.

Meanwhile, Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has blossomed into a beautiful young woman, one that Turpin now nefariously plans to marry. But she has no interest in marrying her creepy caretaker and sees a chance to run away in the attentions of Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), a young sailor who came in to London with Todd and sees Johanna sitting in her window.

Back in the realm of the barbershop, Sweeney Todd has a run-in with Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), a scam artist. Todd learns that Pirelli — who passes himself off as an Italian — is actually a local boy who once worked for Barker and can unmask Todd’s identity. Todd’s having none of this so he slices the man’s neck, thus beginning a career in which he practices his eventual revenge on Turpin by slicing the throats of some of his customers. Though disposal of so many bodies would seem to be a problem, Mrs. Lovett suggests, what with meat being so expensive these days and all, that she take the remains for her meat pies. And apparently “men in need of a shave” is the secret ingredient — once she starts making her man pies, her shop becomes a hot spot.

Song, dance and vicious murder — it’s a surprisingly winning combination. Depp brings his much-practiced weird shtick to Todd and Carter is equally skilled at playing not-quite-right. Both are made up to look like such stock Burton characters that they seem to have stepped right out of one of his animated movies — Corpse Bride, maybe They, along with their surroundings, seem almost black and white, with all colors muted nearly to dull shades of gray so as to make the fountains of spurting blood all the more radiantly red. The people seem like walking corpses and every surface seems like it would be stone cold. The result is an ominous, dangerous London that perfectly fits with the ghoulish story.

Depp’s intense craziness — one that seems over the top even in this miles-over-the-top movie — is well conveyed through his surprisingly deep singing voice, and Carter’s willowy unevenness and occasional lower-voiced sarcasm fit well with her character. You can’t imagine Depp’s Todd really being happy with some rose-cheeked damsel when he fits so well with the ashen-faced Mrs. Lovett.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is big and wild, bloody and charmingly dark. While it doesn’t quite break through the staginess to be spectacular (and certainly, if you don’t like musicals, this almost-entirely-told-in-song movie won’t convince you otherwise), Sweeney Todd still manages to be the one of the best bloody song-and-dance shows all year. B

Rated R for graphic bloody violence. Directed by Tim Burton with a screenplay by John Logan (from an adaptation by Christopher Bond, originally staged by Harold Prince, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an hour and 57 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by DreamWorks SKG, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures International.