The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener
Director:  Tim Burton
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  April 1, 2008

ďHow about a shave?Ē

Film ****

A musical about a deranged barber who slits throats and dumps his victims into the bakery below so they can be made into pies ought to be proof enough that youíve heard of everything.  Itís as dark, macabre, tragic and unsettling as they come, but credit legendary Stephen SondheimÖhe knows how to deliver unforgettable musical entertainment.  That being said, I wouldnít care if I never saw another one like Sweeney Todd.

Donít get me wrong, thatís not a criticism.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is as brilliant as they come, and a perfect match of material to both director (Tim Burton) and star (Johnny Depp) as you could ever hope to witness.  Itís just that you donít usually expect nightmares after watching a musical film.

Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a barber with a lovely wife and young daughter who ends up victimized by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Rickman).  Turpin wants Barkerís bride for himself, so he manages to send the poor man to prison in Australia on a trumped-up charge for who knows how long.

As the film opens, the broken Benjamin returns to London, learns the fate of his family, including that his now grown daughter Johanna (Wisener) is living as a captive ward of Turpin and his crony Beadle Bamford (Spall).  Swearing revenge on the man who took everything from him, he christens himself Sweeney Todd, and prepares to re-open the shop for a new kind of business.

Helping him is the off-kilter Mrs. Lovett (Carter), who runs the worst pie shop in London because meat is so expensive.  Between the two, they hatch an insidious planÖTodd will work his way through the souls of London en route to the judge, and much mayhem and bloodshed will follow.

As gruesome as the proceedings sound, the description is nothing compared to seeing them for yourself.  This is a blood-soaked film that never flinches.  Tim Burton is just the director to handle the material, as he knows better than most artists how to turn the grotesque into a bizarre, dreamlike fantasy where nothing seems quite real, but delivers an impact just as well.  The Oscar winning art direction take you to a vision of underclass England that probably never existed outside of the imagination, and in this world, anything can and usually does happen.

The actors all do their own singing, including Ms. Carter and Mr. Depp, neither of whom had apparently sung before.  Johnny Depp is the most pleasant surprise; he seems a natural at musical theatre, and his voice carries the difficult Sondheim score with apparent ease.  But his overall performance is striking and memorableÖI dare say I think this is his finest work as an actor since his previous Tim Burton collaboration Ed Wood.  He brings truth to the tormented barberís soul, and any year that didnít have Daniel Day-Lewis playing Daniel Plainfield would have seen my Oscar wish go to Depp instead.

The finale is frightening and heartbreakingÖthe strains of the music, which are sometimes comical and sometimes dark, never let you forget that a tragedy is unfolding.  I wonít give anything away, but suffice to say, a movie with this much blood on its hands canít end in a neat and tidy way.

All the elements combine to make Sweeney Todd a bizarre and unnerving masterpiece.  At any rate, itís a far cry from Gene Kelly singing in the rain with a smile on his face.  Iím only glad the barber I frequent uses electric clippers.

Video ****

Oscar winning art direction and anamorphic transfers are a match made in heaven.  Burtonís vision is gloomy, unsaturated, and frequently dark, but Iíve rarely seen a DVD present darkness with such clarity and integrity.  Detail level is strong throughout, and the deliberately muted colors are a visual feast.

Audio ****

This might be the most dynamic audio Iíve yet heard on disc.  In fact, I had to turn it down several times during my viewing, so strong was the punch.  The 5.1 delivers the music with strength and aggression, and makes for a completely mesmerizing listening experience.

Features ***1/2

No commentary, but the first disc contains a look at the collaboration of Depp, Carter and Burton.  The second disc has everything else, starting with a making-of featurette, a look at the history and mythology of Sweeney Todd, a look at the London of his time, featurettes on Stephen Sondheim, the filmís make-up and design, the original French theatre tradition that started it all, plus Depp and Burton on Moviefone Unscripted, the filmís press conference, a photo gallery and a trailer.


It may just be the only musical capable of putting you off your food.  Combine the style of Tim Burton with the legendary music of Stephen Sondheim with a top-notch cast and Oscar winning production design, and you have an unsettling masterpiece of a macabre musical.

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