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Tim Burton’s latest is bloody good
By BRETT MICHEL  |  December 18, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street | Directed by Tim Burton | Written by John Logan | with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen | Dreamworks/Warner Bros. | 117 Minutes
If it weren’t for his beloved turn as Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Johnny Depp would best be known as the cinematic alter ego of Tim Burton. Although their five previous collaborations have not proved uniformly successful (Depp’s misguided Willy Wonka in 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leaves a particularly bitter taste), each has looked into the off-kilter, defiantly demented passions that the two share, a personal element that’s lacking in a bombastic film franchise born of a theme-park attraction. As their sixth outing demonstrates, when the pair collaborate, it’s cause to celebrate — but this time, the party is a wake.

From the moment when Depp’s Sweeney Todd stands at the bow of a 19th-century sailing vessel, his haunted eyes piercing the fog of the Thames, an air of death clings to him. As he opens his pale lips, we’re surprised to hear not an icy whisper escape but a song. It’s a relief, after three films spent channeling the cadence of Keith Richards, to have Depp try on another persona. His wide-eyed, sideways gaze may recall Peter Lorre, but his voice is pure Ziggy Stardust and his David Bowie intonations are clear as he croons Stephen Sondheim’s “No Place like London,” the irony spewing forth like bile.

Sweeney, you see, is returning after 15 years, having escaped his fate in an Australian prison. In his younger days, he was Benjamin Barker, a bright-eyed barber, a good man with a beautiful wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and infant daughter. But then his wife caught the iniquitous eye of the sexually predatory Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). The sunlit London of his youth now gone, replaced by Burton’s beautifully squalid, monochromatic vision (brought to vivid, decrepit life by production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and an unobtrusive dollop of CG backgrounds), Barker has entered a Brechtian nightmare perfect for the Hammer-style horrors to come.

Seeking revenge, the newly christened Sweeney dusts off his barber’s chair in a room above the pie shop of his former landlord, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a widow whose unacknowledged love is embodied by the care with which she’s stored his set of razors all these years. “At last! My arm is complete again,” he proclaims, an outstretched appendage clutching his instruments of retribution. Unlike the title character of Edward Scissorhands, the earliest collaboration between Depp and Burton, Todd isn’t afraid of using his blades. “They all deserve to die,” he sings gloriously (and Depp can sing), and the pallor of his face grows stained with crimson as he slashes the throats of those in his chair.

In condensing Sondheim’s 1979 musical masterpiece of serial killers and cannibalism, Burton and screenwriter John Logan have abridged some songs and discarded others, losing much of the humor that bled onto the stage (casting Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen as a con man helps) and replacing it with, well, blood. Geysers of it. Broadway fans may recoil; horror fans may wonder, “What’s with all the singing?” For the latter, there’s Pirates. For everyone else, there’s the thrill of Burton and Depp making music again, for the very first time.

Related: Potter-schmotter!, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Auteur land?, More more >
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