Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Published: .
Updated: .
David Swindle
Grade: A

Whether it be a popular book, play, TV show, or comic, when it comes time to make the movie adaptation sometimes it's just blatantly obvious which filmmaker is most qualified.

Who should film Frank Miller's ultra-violent, ultra-cool Sin City graphic novels? Perhaps Robert Rodriguez, the maverick action director behind "Desperado" and "From Dusk Till Dawn"? Who should make the American version of the Chinese organized crime thriller "Infernal Affairs"? Could there be a better choice than Martin "Goodfellas" and "Casino" Scorsese? How about the remake of the classic "Halloween"? After stealing the crown of the land of horror with "The Devil's Rejects" Rob Zombie could not be more qualified.

And the results? Three resounding successes. When it comes to making great films half the work is just finding the right people.

So what director would be most appropriate for a dark, gothic musical set in Jack the Ripper-era London, featuring an insane, serial killing barber? Ten points for everyone who guessed Tim Burton

Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed musical is well at home in Burton's hands. It's astonishing just how perfectly it fits the director's sensibilities. See, if Burton is known for anything it's for his sense of the macabre. With "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Sleepy Hollow," the first two "Batman" films, and "Corpse Bride" Burton firmly established himself as the go-to-guy for the gothic. But that's only part of the story. What makes a film Burton-esque is not the darkness in and of itself but the infusion of the light into it. Amidst the blackest moments and most deathly settings there's still love, passion, and a quirky sense of humor. "Sweeney Todd" is certainly macabre but it's also very funny and passionate.

"Sweeney Todd" begins with young sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) guiding his ship into a foggy London night. His passenger is a man broken from 15 years' imprisonment in Australia. Once called Benjamin Barker, the man with the white streak in his hair now calls himself Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp.) Todd relates his tragic tale to the sailor. He used to be a successful London barber with his beautiful wife Lucy and infant daughter Johanna. All that was lost when the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) discovered Lucy, lusted after her, and had Barker imprisoned on false charges. The judge then kept Lucy and locked away Johanna as his ward.

Now the wronged barber has returned for his revenge. Todd returns to his one remaining friend, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter,) the maker of "the worst meat pies in London." So Todd sets up shop in the abandoned room above Mrs. Lovett's and begins plotting how he will get back at Turpin.

Todd falls further into madness when his first chance at vengeance against his nemesis fails and a competitor (Sacha Baron Cohen) blackmails him for half of his wages. This results in the first of many bodies Todd will generate. He and Mrs. Lovett are then faced with the difficult question of how to dispose of the corpses. Judging it to be a shame for all that meat to go to waste the pair decide to kill two birds with one stone - meat's expensive after all - and use the dead for Mrs. Lovett's pies. This decision quickly leads to Mrs. Lovett's becoming one of London's most popular restaurants.

Now if that story doesn't scream Tim Burton from the rooftops then nothing does. And, oh, does he pull it off. "Sweeney Todd" is a wondrously entertaining film from start to finish, sure to delight even those violently opposed to musicals. Depp and Bonham-Carter both give the kind of excellent performances we've come to expect from them. Rickman gives his usual, effective, villain riff. The biggest delight of the film is Cohen as Todd's rival, a role made particularly ironic by being brought to life by the madman behind Ali G and Borat.

"Sweeney Todd" is a real return to form for Burton; it's certainly his best film since "Sleepy Hollow" - perhaps even better. Here's hoping he drifts more toward his "Edward Scissorhands," "Batman," and "Ed Wood" period rather than that of the more recent disappointments "Planet of the Apes" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." I'm optimistic.