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Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) 

Directed by: Tim Burton

Premise: An adaptation of the stage musical. After years in exile, a barber (Johnny Depp) returns to London to find his wife and child. After being told that his wife is dead and the judge who wrongly imprisoned him is holding his child, Sweeney Todd goes through a psychotic episode and joins with a baker specializing in meat pies (Helena Bonham Carter). Todd begins murdering his customers and his partner cooks them into pies that become very popular. 

What Works: Sweeney Todd has some great performances by Johnny Depp as the mad barber, Helena Bonham Carter as his unscrupulous co-tenant, and Ed Sanders as a shop boy. Of the three, Bonham Carter is the one who really shines, as the role gives her the most range and she takes advantage of the various opportunities to act mad and conniving but also sensitive and motherly. Depp adds another notch to his belt, proving he can carry a tune, and he is able to balance the portrayal of Sweeney Todd, making it clear he is a deranged psychopath but also allowing the character the kind of sympathy afforded to characters like the monster in Frankenstein or Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon. It’s a great performance that carefully manages the madness and the camp to produce a fun but disturbing look at a man unraveling through his quest for revenge. As expected from a Tim Burton film, the art direction and makeup are highly stylized and are a joy to look at, and they successfully translate the stage musical to the cinematic form. This is very true in the scenes of gore, which take on a Three Stooges quality seen in Evil Dead 2. The gore and the overall tone of the film contribute to the gallows humor of the picture, much of it delivered by Bonham Carter with deadpan perfection.

What Doesn’t: As a musical, Sweeney Todd never quite finds its voice. The singing by the actors is good but the looping is not, and when viewing the film in a theater it is quite obvious that it has been dubbed during post-production. The execution of these scenes is not quite what we have come to expect from the excellence of other contemporary musicals like Dreamgirls or Moulin Rouge! The quality of the cinematography varies, with some scenes featuring great compositions that fuse stage and cinema and others that are very plain and have little artistic inspiration.

Bottom Line: Sweeney Todd has some great characters but it can never quite get off the ground because of its bland presentation. The film has good performances and solid art direction but its musical numbers don’t work as well as they should.

Episode: #172 (December 30, 2007)