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 TrueHD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 116 Minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2008
“How about a shave?”
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 you’ve heard of everything. It’s as dark, macabre, tragic and unsettling as they come, but credit legendary Stephen Sondheim…he knows how to deliver unforgettable musical entertainment. That being said, I wouldn’t care if I never saw another one like Sweeney Todd.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s 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. It’s just that you don’t 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 Barker’s 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 plan…Todd 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 memorable…I 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 barber’s soul, and any year that didn’t have Daniel Day-Lewis playing Daniel Plainfield would have seen my Oscar wish go to Depp instead.
The finale is frightening and heartbreaking…the strains of the music, which are sometimes comical and sometimes dark, never let you forget that a tragedy is unfolding. I won’t give anything away, but suffice to say, a movie with this much blood on its hands can’t end in a neat and tidy way.
All the elements combine to make Sweeney Todd a bizarre and unnerving masterpiece. At any rate, it’s a far cry from Gene Kelly singing in the rain with a smile on his face. I’m only glad the barber I frequent uses electric clippers.
This movie, as mentioned, earned an Academy Award for art direction, and man, does Blu-ray ever make the most of it. The intricate detail of Burton's vision shines through immaculately in high definition, and the deliberately muted color schemes take on a whole new life of vividness. There is so much to look at in frame after frame...count this amongst the best the format has to offer.
I thought the DVD was possibly the most dynamic listening experience I'd had to date, but it has nothing on the lossless TrueHD soundtrack included here. The bombastic music takes on a much fuller orchestral feel and a truly operatic quality; it's like going to the theatre in your own home. Dialogue is cleanly delivered throughout, and there is enough activity to warrant plenty of rear channel usage. The subwoofer drives Sondheim's irascible score home with powerful punctuation.
No commentary, but the Blu-ray disc contains all the extras of the double DVD release, starting witha look at the collaboration of Depp, Carter and Burton. There is 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 film’s make-up and design, the original French theatre tradition that started it all, plus Depp and Burton on Moviefone Unscripted, the film’s press conference, a photo gallery and a trailer. And as a plus, all extras are remastered for HD!
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 and a truly extraordinary, unforgettable high definition experience.