Musical films were once all the rage in Hollywood. The enthusiastic response to musical sequences in early features with sound quickly led to the growth of the genre, to the point where musicals were everywhere throughout the '30s and '40s. The musical fell into disuse for several decades, until a revival began in the late'90s. The side-effect of this revival is that, like most film trends, many tremendously awful musicals have been adapted. Thankfully, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is anything but awful.
Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim & Hugo Wheeler--and in turn upon the 19th century legend--Sweeney Todd tells the tale of the titular character, once a barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), who was exiled to prison by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) hell-bent on nailing Barker's wife. Now calling himself Sweeney Todd, Barker returns to London with his mind set on avenging his lost wife and rescuing his daughter from the judge's custody. To this end, Barker befriends Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a local pie-shop owner who seemingly prides herself on selling the worst meat pies in London. When an opportunity presents itself to improve Lovett's business while getting Barker a chance at revenge, both jump at it.
The success of Sweeney Todd is ultimately the triumph of director Tim Burton. To mainstream cinema fans, Burton may be best known for crafting the mega-hit 1989 Batman film and its disappointing sequel. His films are always marked by a tremendous amount of atmosphere, generally awash in inky blacks and whites. However, Burton's largest flaw is inconsistency. Many of his films have scenes that, for one reason or another, simply do not work. Sweeney Todd, on the other hand, is undoubtedly Burton's most complete, consistent film. On their own and as part of a larger whole, every scene works.
From the get-go, the film tells the audience who every character is and why they should care about them. The title character is introduced in the very first scene and outlines everything about himself in the span of one song. The first 20 minutes of the film are spent in this manner, introducing characters and their motivations in an enjoyable, concise manner. Writer John Logan and composer Stephen Sondheim should be commended for their efforts.
From the introductory segment, Todd gets down to business. Characters act and interact and the stakes are raised, all while the palette of the film remains devoid of colour. This continues until the action of the film starts, at which point the audience has seen so much black and white that any bloodshed brightens up the film. It's blatant manipulation by Burton, his cinematographer and designers, but it's pulled off brilliantly.
The cast is relatively small. Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter are given the majority of the scenes and do well, as expected. Sasha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall have smaller roles but do just fine. The true revelation of Sweeney Todd are the trio of younger actors: Edward Sanders (as a young boy taken in by Barker & Lovett), Jayne Wisener (as Barker's lost daughter) and Jamie Campbell Boyer (as a young sailor who pines for her) are fantastic, delivering fine acting and excellent singing. It's rather rare that any actor steals scenes from Johnny Depp, but Sanders and Boyer are both guilty of it.
Even though Tim Burton has been crafting films for three decades, perhaps only 1994's Ed Wood could be considered a masterpiece. His latest effort, Sweeney Todd, is his most ambitious, audacious attempt at filmmaking to date, surpassing the atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow, the good-natured violence of The Nightmare Before Christmas and the quirkiness of Ed Wood. Burton has put together a film that's gripping, entertaining and, at times, even quietly affecting. After all these years, Burton finally has his masterpiece.
Sweeney Todd is now in theatres.