This winter season, a close shave is in fashion. Just make sure your barber isn’t British, unnaturally pale and disturbingly fond of his razors.
The person responsible for spreading the fear (or appreciation, depending on how twisted you are) of a serial killer with these characteristics is Hollywood weirdo Tim Burton, arguably the only filmmaker fit to adapt the utterly harrowing Sondheim musical, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” In his movie, winner of two Golden Globes including Best Actor and Best Musical or Comedy, Burton teams up with long-time collaborator Johnny Depp and current girlfriend/muse Helena Bonham Carter to depict the blood-chilling transformation of an ordinary man into an indiscriminating killer.
Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is initially Benjamin Barker, a happily married London barber who gets falsely charged and sentenced by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who covets his wife (Laura Michelle Kelly). Years later, the barber returns, with a new name and a thirst for vengeance. He meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who makes “the worst pies in London” in a shop below his former lodgings. She recognizes Todd and restores his razors to him. Sweeney wins a shaving competition against Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), who turns out to be his former apprentice and threatens to reveal his true identity. Enraged, Todd slits Pirelli’s throat and the enterprising Mrs. Lovett grinds his body into pie meat. A partnership is born, and, while waiting for a chance to “shave” Turpin, Sweeney provides Mrs. Lovett with the ghastly material that restores her clientele.
While resembling a crime thriller and horror movie, “Sweeney” is primarily a musical. Most of the lines are sung, following Sondheim’s original lyrics. The renowned composer actually worked on this film, but die-hard fans of the Broadway production will be disappointed, since many musical numbers have been shortened or cut to ensure a more dynamic flow of events. However, this does not detract from the overall quality of the soundtrack, which bears the imprint of Sondheim’s musical genius and is at once powerful and compelling. This, coupled with Tim Burton’s rich and vivid visuals, makes the film a memorable experience.
“Sweeney” is thoroughly Burtonian, following his signature dark and imagery-obsessed visual style. As in “Edward Scissorhands,” the setting is carefully constructed and imaginative. Stylized and unrealistic elements such as the flamboyantly fake blood are mixed in with convincing ones such as the hellish barber chair, the thud of the corpses against the basement floor and the city itself. Burton’s London is dark, gloomy and grim. Enveloped in a ghastly veil of industrial smog, it creates a stifling atmosphere that reflects the dismal and ominous nature of the protagonist’s thoughts. The grimy, shady streets roamed by the likes of beggars and frauds illustrate Todd’s description of Victorian London as “a great black pit” inhabited by the “vermin of the world,” presenting the city as a place where the struggle for survival breeds vice and stifles scruples.
Sweeney Todd himself is no Edward Scissorhands, despite the similarities in makeup. He slits throats with a gusto that puts the main characters of “Natural Born Killers” to shame, holding to the conviction that we all deserve to die. Depp’s singing leaves something to be desired, with his rock’n’roll voice often lacking the crucial depth and power necessary to convey the desperation and hatred coded into Sondheim’s lyrics. His acting, however, transports the audience into the mind of a killer who, despite being horrifying, is never unsympathetic — one can clearly sense his distress, suffering and pain.
Despite Depp’s excellent performance, Bonham Carter steals the show as the ever-businesslike Mrs. Lovett. She portrays all the nuances of a complex and often-contradictory personality, adding depth and a certain mysterious air to the character. As a result, Bonham Carter is equally convincing as a conniving, merciless entrepreneur and as a woman dreaming of a peaceful, harmonious family life.
With such directorial, acting and musical talent brought together by a darkly enthralling story, it looks like misanthropy and cannibalism have finally found a new hero. Doctor Lecter, eat your heart out.