I just got back from seeing Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Johnny Depp plays Sweeney, and Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett. Having been exiled from England for fifteen years for a crime he didn’t commit, Todd returns to London seeking revenge on the man who unjustly sent him away, Judge Turpin, played by Alan Rickman. He sets up his barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and guarantees his clients the closest shave they’ve ever had. Here’s a taste, part of the scene in which Mrs. Lovett figures out what to do with the bodies:

Sweeney Todd is getting lots of good reviews and quite a lot of Oscar talk. It’s definitely well deserved. I loved it!

Let’s start with Depp: he’s perfect for this role. His voice is surprisingly strong and appealing, and he gives Todd a real sense of anguish. Maybe because it’s Depp, but you can see why the other characters, Mrs. Lovett for example, really like him. His Todd has soul, and this is definitely Depp’s best performance to date. He’s been nominated for two Academy Awards in recent years; Sweeney Todd should be his third.

Helena Bonham Carter is equally good. Her voice is a little thinner than his, but I think that really works for her character. It wouldn’t make sense, given Burton’s look for the film, for her to have a big, booming voice. Instead, she’s not really mousy but reticent to give too much away or to make too bold a statement, which makes sense for two reasons. First, Mrs. Lovett does have a secret or two to keep. She becomes Todd’s accomplice, which necessitates a certain level of secrecy, but she also has a secret that is in her self-interest to keep from him. Bonham Carter does a great job of imbuing this incarnation of Mrs. Lovett with pathos and grit. (Bonham Carter is being pushed in the lead category for awards, which I think is a mistake — she should be in the supporting category where she would be very competitive, I think.)

Second, Todd‘s vision of nineteenth-century London isn’t the most romantic one imaginable. In fact, it’s downright Dickensian. One of the themes of the film is that the rich prey upon the poor, that human beings consume one another all the time. This metaphorical consumption, of course, becomes literal after the scene above as Todd and Mrs. Lovett feed their victims to paying customers. In this respect, the play and film have something more to say than just the tale of Sweeney Todd. They’re a commentary on capitalism and its inherent dangers if everyone is just out for him- or herself.

Not everyone in the film is just out for themselves. Anthony Hope, played by Jamie Campbell Bower, for example, just wants to love Johanna, Todd’s daughter, played by Jayne Wisener. Johanna has been adopted by Judge Turpin, who intends to marry her himself. Anthony falls in love with her and wants to rescue her from her guardian; he eventually gets her away from him, but in keeping with the film’s overall view of humanity Johanna doesn’t believe that she will ever be free of the ghosts of her past suffering. Like the film, she refuses a romantic vision of the world around her. Hope is good in his role, and Wisener is oddly appropriate for hers — her face is awkwardly shaped, which again really fits well with Burton’s vision.

This lack of romanticism is reflected in the film’s art direction, costume design, makeup, and cinematography, all of which should also be nominated for Oscars. This movie is the perfect marriage of Burton’s aesthetic and theatricality and the story’s content. I definitely think that this is his best film.

It’s also reflected in the film’s reveling in lots of blood. Todd’s slitting of throats is horrific, shocking, and totally entertaining. I wasn’t anticipating how funny this film would be. Burton certainly has a macabre sense of humor, one that pushes the limits a bit, but one that also fits this play. I’ve never seen a stage production of the musical — I have seen some YouTube clips of two productions — so I don’t know if this comic element is typical but this interpretation’s combination of gore and humor really works for me. Sacha Baron Cohen, for example, plays a rival barber to great comic effect.

Finally, Rickman is well cast as the evil judge. He and his henchman, Beadle Bamford, played by Timothy Spall, dole out dastardly deeds throughout the film. Again, some of these deeds are played for black humor, and the audience is certainly happy that they get their just desserts in the end.

I don’t know what my list of top films of the year will ultimately look like, but Sweeney Todd is definitely competitive for a slot. And after all, isn’t that what’s really important? Forget the Oscars — making my little list of favorite movies is, I’m sure, all Burton is really hoping for! 😉

Advertisements