Harry loves the delicious meat pies of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET - that Burton is some cook!
SWEENEY TODD is Tim Burton’s best film since ED WOOD – which I consider to be his very best film to date. That said, upon multiple viewings it is possible this film will become my favorite Burton film.
It is that perfect subject matter for him… a hybrid of Disney and Bava and Corman. In structure it is a sweeping love story between a young innocent man and a caged would be Repunzel… but then there’s that rare character that you never see in a Disney fantasy musical. A bitter psychopathic father figure that is out to revenge the horror of his own life. I would call this Tim Burton’s Grimmest Fairy Tale.
The story of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is sort of like the first version of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Alleged to have been based on a real series of crimes from around 1800 – though nobody seems to be able to find any real evidence about it. However, in the mid-1800s the story started appearing in literature. And from their it became a popular urban legend of a Barber that slit the throats of his clients and with his lady friend baked them into meat pies and served them back to folks of the town.
A delicious Grand Guignol tale that is, simply irresistible. And as a work of film, set to Sondheim’s songs it is very much the great dark musical fantasy horror work.
Now here’s a warning for all of you. If you can’t stand ALL SINGING MUSICALS – be forewarned, this is almost entirely a singing film. With that form of dialogue known as SING-TALKING. Personally, I’m a big fan of the musical form, from the early days of the musicals where the songs were incorporated in the lives of performers… to the big 50’s and 60’s era of fully produced musical theater on screen.
The film begins with a young Anthony Hope, played by Jamie Campbell Bower, upon a bow of a great sailing ship breaking through the fog heading toward London singing:
I have sailed the world
beheld its wonders
from the dardinells,
to the mountains of Peru,
But there's no place like London!
He’s singing with the passion and the hope of a young Disney hero, impossibly young, boyish and handsome – entirely pure and hopeful.
And then, right when he’s at his height, the camera pulls back to make room for the joyless, tormented, world weary Sweeny Todd, who spits out with barely restrained disgust and loathing:
There's a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed...
I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders,
for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
but there's no place like London!
And it is with that spitfire bit of song that Sweeney’s entire philosophy of London is given. You see, he doesn’t just loathe those that did him and his ill. He blames the whole of London, all of those that did nothing – and with that he sets himself as judge, juror and executioner of them all. It is, absolutely delightful.
Depp’s SWEENEY TODD is not the showy work of Jack Sparrow, he isn’t playing a character that can even be compared. Sparrow is about openly speaking and wanton physicality. Sweeney is a man boiling on the inside, he has experienced torture and confinement for years… he lost his wife and child and the center of his rage is upon the man that did him that wrong. He kills many, but there’s only one whom he’ll take pleasure in slicing. He hates himself as much as he loathes all others. He blames himself as being a fool to have been taken so unaware and for once being as blind as Antony.
Depp’s voice isn’t terribly harmonic, but it’s due to the lack of joy in his voice here. He’s as black as the great black pit and all the people who are filled with shit. He’s a tormented soul and his singing reflects that. Though, you shouldn’t get the feeling that he’s “one note” he isn’t. The first time we see the fire in his eyes and the charge of purpose is with the song, MY FRIENDS – which is a wonderfully bizarre duet – where he is singing with passion and communal sorrow for his razors, his old friends that he will use to exact his revenge…. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter) is singing hoping to catch his eye and share in this reunion, but Sweeney is all about the blades and the purpose they will help him realize. My favorite song / scene with Depp is when he has the Judge (played by Alan Rickman) sitting in his chair and is relishing the opportunity to give him a second lower smile – and they’re singing PRETTY WOMEN.
PRETTY WOMEN is possibly one of the most dementedly awesome moments I’ve seen in a film ever. I have never seen SWEENEY TODD on stage, so this was all new – and when the Judge is singing about the specific pretty woman that he has his sites honed in upon… it’s Todd’s friggin’ daughter – and Todd is goading him forward, all the while he’s readying to slice the man’s throat. The song is lovely, twisted and amongst the most ironically cheerful moments of the film.
Rickman’s Judge is thoroughly brilliant throughout. He is a particularly loathsome character obsessed with the beauty of Todd’s former wife, and now that she’s out of the way – his magnificent obsession has been to raise the child and groom her for his own perverted means. It’s one of those… so wrong it’s right things. It’s my fave Rickman role in quite some time. And of all his moments – my favorite is when he takes Anthony (the boyish would-be hero and lover) into his study and begins to insinuate a sordid life for the young sailor…
“Oh, yes … such practices … the geishas of Japan … the concubines of Siam .. the catamites of Greece … the harlots of India … I have them all here .. Drawings of them …” Then he looks at Anthony and sings, “All the vile things you’ve done with your whores!”
Rickman absolutely is remarkable in the scene… coveting and longing for the dirty women of the world – while loathing the boy who he assumes has lived out his fantasies. It’s a great great scene. One of many for him.
However, the character that probably a ton of you are waiting to hear about is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Signor Adolfo Pirelli, the greatest barber in the world – or so he claims. I’m happy to report that Sacha is utterly brilliant and hilarious in that role. During THE CONTEST folks are going to go friggin’ nuts over him – and this is exactly the sort of role that the Academy might nominate for a Supporting Actor nod. It’s a delicious and wondrous character and Cohen blew the audience away with this performance. And I expect that every time this movie plays that beginning with the introduction of Pirelli’s character – the mass audience is going to fall head over heels for the film. His scenes are the lightest and most fun of the film (in a traditional mainstream way).
Me – my favorite moments are all the deliciously wrong and twisted scenes… like the song, A LITTLE PRIEST – where they discuss the meat for Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pies or PRETTY WOMEN number or the utterly insane and crazed BY THE SEA number.
Now my favorite character in the entire film is played by a young boy that has no previous film experience that I can find. His name? Ed Sanders and he plays Toby aka Tobias Ragg. Watching a young lad be this brilliant at this age… just left me flabbergasted. I haven’t been this stunned by a singing child since Jack Wild’s The Artful Dodger in OLIVER! When this kid begins his barkering song for Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir. Later when he’s chugging rum like I did Halloween night – we fall that much more in love with him. He’s being a naughty boy, like boys used to be when forced into hard labor and hard lives. Shame the world changed. Watching a boy forced to indentured slavery – reminds you of times when kids were good for something. Heh. His character is the most grounded and realistic character in a film made of characters that think only of themselves. He has the soul to care for others, value human life and well – Ed Sanders – I hope this is a beginning of a beautiful career – because it’s easily my favorite character in the whole film.
Now – let’s talk about how this is one of the most lush and beautifully captured films I’ve seen. Victorian England has never looked better. Dariusz Wolski (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films and DARK CITY) makes a perfect partner as Burton’s DP. By the time you see his final shot – you’ll just be drooling. Dante Ferretti’s amazing production design is again amazing. At every level the film works.
I can not wait to see this film again, it’s easily one of my favorites this year. I feel this was one of those perfect material, perfect cast resulting in the best work from Burton in over a decade. And that’s a great thing for all of us.