Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

If you have any desire to watch yet another playfully gothic film from Tim Burton featuring Johnny Depp, this time playing a character who appears to be second cousin of Edward Scissorhands, you can probably count Sweeney Todd as a film worth seeing. Of course, I should probably add to my list of qualifications that you really need to not mind a barrage of gratuitous neck slitting and blood spurting, and a plethora of tunes sung in often incomprehensible cockney accents. If there is anyone (anyone?) out there who will happily tolerate all these elements, roll up, roll up.

The story revolves around the macabre exploits of Johnny Depp’s character, Benjamin Barker, who returns to London at the start of the film after a period in exile. We come to learn that Depp’s character had been sent away for a crime he did not commit, by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who was secretly lusting after Barker’s wife. Learning from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) that his wife had apparently since died, Depp embarks on a quest for revenge, resuming his previous occupation as a barber under the moniker Sweeney Todd. Needless to say, things don’t go quite according to plan, and Barker’s vengeance quickly expands in scope to the throat of practically anyone within in reach. Mrs. Lovett, a pie shop owner concerned about the price of meat, “assists” in disposing of the resulting corpses in a most entrepreneurial way.

Put simply, there is more singing (or sing-song speaking) than speaking in this movie. You have been warned. Johnny Depp’s voice, as has been widely reported, is somewhat thin but surprisingly capable, although one gets the impression that some of the takes would have taken a significant amount of attempts to get right for someone of his somewhat limited calibre. Bonham Carter is a fine foil for Depp’s character, although at times in the movie her high-pitched singing and accent are virtually impenetrable. Alan Rickman plays a “bad guy” as perhaps only Alan Rickman can, and Sacha Baron Cohen even turns up in a most enjoyable but sadly brief cameo as Pirelli, a rival barber.

All in all, if you can get past the singing and the blood, it makes for a quite entertaining combination, and certainly a welcome diversion from run of the mill Hollywood pap. Johnny Depp occupies an interesting place in the pantheon of Hollywood actors at the moment; not really recognised as a prodigiously talented actor, but possessing a wonderful knack for bringing off the wall characters to life. As Joe Queenan ruminated in the Guardian in the wake of Heath Ledger’s sad death, Depp has not been showered with many formal awards for his performances, but is not just admired these days, but beloved. It is this sort of movie that he shines in, revolving around a character that he can fill with his seemingly boundless supply of oddball charm. Whether it will be enough to land him an Oscar this time around remains to be seen, but in the imaginary “Most Charming Performance” award category, he is certain to triumph hands down.

2 thoughts on “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

  1. Indeed – from Steven Sondheim. Certainly I had never heard of the musical before the release of this movie though; I wonder if that is something to do with the rather macabre content. It’s not like you see a lot of Sweeney Todd productions around the traps.

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