Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman
Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the heartfelt tale of a victim of injustice. A victim of injustice whose frustrated quest for homicidal vengeance mutates into a ceaseless parade of serial murder, in which the dead are put through a meat grinder and served to the public as savory pies.
In other words, worst Christmas movie ever.
But apart from the deliciously counter-intuitive timing, the film is a perfect romp for the dark duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, longtime collaborators in the purveyance of dark and disturbing thrills. It is based upon Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical, drawing from 150 years of iterations of this story—which makes a tragic hero out of, more or less, Jack the Ripper. (While we’re on the subject of counter-intuitive …)
Film starts a bit slow. The opening credit sequence is a perfect example of why “Oh, we’ll just do it in CG” is not making movies better. Even a doll house model of old London would’ve looked less like a doll house than the computer graphics here. From there, the film starts with some really lackluster songs that come and go with no particular significance. The movie improves steadily, especially with the early arrival of Helena Bonham Carter as insane love interest to the homicidally embittered Depp. The music peps up as well, or seems to. This Sondheim guy has been pretty successful at this stuff, so my indifference to the first half of the musical may be the contrarian position.
Depp, dressed as the Goth King of the Steampunk Prom, broods and seethes and slices a lot of throats with straight razors. Burton makes the gushing red blood pop from his moody blue- or amber-tinged settings. He has gleeful fun with arterial spray, and with the impact of fresh corpse dumped from a three-story height. The film is full of macabre humor, the murders played for shock and thrill, but not for true horror. It’s like a carnival “dark ride,” meant to give you uncomfortable gasps and giggles now, not nightmares later.
Admirably, Burton serves the story perfectly. The danger with a guy as gleefully Tim Burton as he is, is that the style, the Tim Burton-ness of the thing, overwhelms the actual needs of the story. Here, you’re in the familiar stylish hands of a master of dark atmosphere, of humor and dread. He plays with light and shadow, he plays with reflections in mirrors and windows and puddles and Depp’s blades. He throws in surprising bits of whimsy (sulking Depp in Bonham Carter’s candy-colored fantasies) amid effortless staging and camerawork that simply adores his ridiculously talented cast.
It’s a story nearly devoid of redeeming characters, and that makes little use of what non-villains it possesses. If merry, amoral gore served up with a smile (like Bonham Carter’s cannibalistic meat pies) is what jingles your bells, Burton’s Todd is a wicked treat.