‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’

Demonic Depp leads dance of death


On many other actors Victorian period costumes would look like, well, costumes, but on Johnny Depp, they cover his physique like a second skin — merging with his persona as if he had a spent his life wearing lace cuffs and with his feet, encased in heavy boots, treading on nothing but mud and cobblestones.

Depp always cuts a strikingly authentic figure, reeking of Victorian decadence and gothic poverty, while most of the cast just look elaborately madeup. To this, Depp always adds a dose of heart-wrenching romanticism, one of the few American actors who can pull this off with ease.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is Depp’s latest (and deepest) foray into stylized Victorian macabre. Teaming up with longtime collaborator Tim Burton (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Sleepy Hollow”), Depp in the title role would have sent Vincent Price in his prime into a paroxysm of teeth-gnashing envy. The horror that he generates here is so immediate and real you can almost smell it.

Burton’s wondrous 19th-century London set (designed by Academy Award-winning Dante Ferrelli) both complements and clashes with the untamed, depraved and soulful monster Depp creates on-screen. When his Sweeney is in the frame, Burton’s sinister and sordid London streets look too small to contain the depth and momentum of his fury. When he speeds through those same streets, it’s as if he’s sprouted shadowy demon wings that carry him on an unspeakable mission of evil and remorseless violence.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Director Tim Burton
Run Time 117 minutes
Language English

Sweeney Todd, aka the Demon Barber, is a London folk legend. But, unlike his contemporary Jack the Ripper, it’s unconfirmed whether the man really existed. The original legend has it that he joined forces with a pie-making widow named Mrs. Lovett to rob and kill customers unfortunate enough to sit in his barber’s chair; Sweeney would slit their throats, cut up their flesh and pass it on to Lovett, who would use it in her meat pies. Her business thrived and so did their relationship, but it’s said they were caught and sentenced to death around 1870 after killing 160 people.

Sweeney’s story played in London theaters and the Grand Guignol in Paris before Christopher Bond penned a play based on it in 1973. Six years later, Broadway prodigal Stephen Sondheim gave it lyrics and music, launching a megahit that was often described as the bloodiest show on Broadway.

Who better than Tim Burton, American meister of macabre, to recreate the Sweeney legend complete with Sondheim’s songs on-screen? The story, based closely on Bond’s play, is considerably, um, meatier than the original London version, elevated to a tale of love and revenge rather than one of mere robbery and serial killing.

Here, Sweeney Todd used to be Benjamin Barker, the Fleet Street barber, quietly enjoying life with his wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and their infant girl, Johanna. All is destroyed, however, when the lecherous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) slaps Benjamin with false charges and ships him off to life imprisonment in Australia. Benjamin escapes after 15 years and returns to London aided by young sailor Toby (Ed Sanders). As soon as he hits town, Benjamin sprints through the streets to his old barber shop where landlady Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter in Goth-angel mode) informs him that Lucy took poison after being raped by the judge and Johanna has been his ward ever since.

Benjamin changes his name to Sweeney Todd and refashions himself into a bloodthirsty, razor-brandishing machine of vengeance. For starters, he kills rival barber Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron-Cohen) with a rapid swish of his razor blade across the throat (the first of many such sequences) and wonders later how to dispose of the body. Lovett has the wonderful idea to bake them into her pies (“the worst pies in London!”) The pair are in business.

Sweeney’s in it to get back at Turpin for so grossly wrecking his life but, failing to kill him right away, his thirst for revenge encompasses all of London.

Lovett’s in it for a rosy future with Sweeney, hopefully by the sea. Bonham Carter’s rendition of the song (“By the Sea”), sang in her kitchen, is sentimental and delightfully wicked — her sweet contralto voice contrasts neatly with her cannibalistic pie-making and her maniacal plans for happiness.

But in the end, the film belongs to Depp. He eclipses the rest of the brilliant cast and Burton’s lens keeps swerving back to him, intent on not missing a single stifled sigh or a sad lowering of eyelids. The singing of the others is capable, but when Depp sings, the music actually reverberates with his despair and uncontrollable need for blood. He is no longer human but a cloaked pillar of Gothic lunacy.