There could be no better match for the gothic saga of the barber who slit men’s throats and the baker who made their bodies into pies than director Tim Burton, the master of the macabre. Here working with Johnny Depp, his favorite leading man, and Helena Bonham-Carter, his off- and on-screen muse, Burton creates a vast world of Victorian gothic menace that ideally sets off Stephen Sondheim’s grimly intricate lyrics.
Depp plays Todd, once a happy husband and father named Benjamin Barker until the corrupt and predatory Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) decided that he wanted Barker’s wife for himself. So the judge had Barker imprisoned on trumped-up charges and took advantage of the wife’s trust and vulnerability. As the movie begins, Barker is sailing home. He takes on a new name because nothing from his life as Barker remains. Mrs. Lovett, his new landlady (Bonham-Carter) tells the now-Sweeney Todd that his wife took poison and the judge became the guardian of his child. Everything has been taken from him but his razors. He holds them up to the ceiling: “At last, my arm is complete again!” All that is left is his blades, his anger and an overwhelming, consuming passion for revenge.
That passion becomes more focused when another barber (“Borat’s” Sasha Baron Cohen) tries to blackmail Todd, and it becomes clear that the razor can serve the dual purpose of solving that problem and slaking (temporarily) that thirst for vengance. Murder, bloody, grisly, butchery murder becomes a necessity not just for the elimination of obstacles but as an outlet for the only emotion the former Benjamin Barker has left. But what to do with the bodies? That is where Mrs. Lovett, baker of the worst pies in London, has a solution. She is always in the market for meat that is fresh. And free. It is a gruesomely ideal partnership.
Burton’s vision of 19th century London is deliciously creepy, part Addams Family, part Edward Gorey, everything twisted and sooty and grubby. The camera swoops through the city like a raven on its way to a graveyard. Bugs scuttle along the counter in Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. There are flickers of humanity — a flashback of Barker with his wife and baby, a picnic, Barker’s rosy daughter, now grown, imprisioned like Rapunzel as the judge waits for her to be old enough to marry and she waits by the window for the young sailor who has promised to rescue her.
Depp and Bonham-Carter beautifully portray the squashed grubbiness of their characters, their untrained but clear voices adding an authenticity and intimacy to the characterizations. Rickman is powerful and Baron Cohen is florid without being flamboyant and young Ed Sanders is outstanding as the boy who is rescued from an abusive master only to be drawn into something worse. The story, party fairy tale part cautionary urban legend dating back over 100 years, taps into our own wishes for revenge — and our fear of those impulses. Audiences will be disconcerted to find themselves rooting for Todd, which is the point.
Parents should know that the movie’s themes are serial killing and cannibalism, with very grisly and disturbing images. There are very graphic scenes of murder by slit throat with gallons of spurting blood and references to sexual predators with an offscreen rape.
Families who see this movie should talk about what (if anything) makes Sweeney Todd a sympathetic character.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands (also with Depp).