Great Movies: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

By Christian DiMartino

The 2007 Oscar season was a strange one. It was going on during the Writer’s Strike, and so results were all over the place. Atonement began as a front-runner, Juno and There Will Be Blood were barely apart of the conversation, and so on. Atonement didn’t even score a Best Director nomination, which is preposterous. But none of these bother me as much as the fact that Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street flew under the radar.

I find it sickening, considering that they’ve recognized films like Les Miserables, a film that pales in comparison. Of the many great films in 2007 (The three I mentioned above, along with No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, Ratatouille, 3:10 to Yuma, and American Gangster, to name a few), I say Sweeney Todd is the best. A bold statement, yes, but it’s such a rich, beautiful, haunting, funny, grim, and strangely moving film that I still can’t believe its near snubbing across the board.

This is the film Burton was born to make, and the result is what I think is his best work. Burton has never been the most acclaimed filmmaker. Sure, his films have gotten the credit they deserve, but most of the time, they’re just good fun. Sweeney Todd is something different. It’s something deeper, something beautiful. It’s an absolute bloody gem.

Johnny Depp gives what I’d say is the performance of his career as Benjamin Barker, a gentle barber whose life is destroyed when his wife Lucy catches the eye of the villainous Judge Turpin (the late great Alan Rickman in one of his best performances). The Judge has Barker locked away and imprisoned for life, just so then he can swoop in on Lucy and their baby daughter, Joanna.

This is all told in flashbacks. Flash-forward 15 years, and we find Barker heading back to London after escaping prison with a new name: Sweeney Todd. He befriends a sailor named Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who ties back into the story later. Upon arriving in London, he returns to his old barber shop, and right underneath of it is a pie shop ran by a lonely woman named Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who claims she has the worst pies in London (she probably isn’t kidding. A cockroach crawls out of one).

She soon recognizes him, and gives him the lowdown of what has happened the past fifteen years: his wife, Lucy, was pretty much forced into a relationship with Turpin before she poisoned herself, and his daughter, Joanna, is currently living with him, locked away in her room (Turpin stares in at her from time to time, and actually plans to marry her. See? Told ya this was dark stuff). This is when Todd begins his plan for revenge: He will re-establish himself professionally, practice murdering his costumers, and simply wait to lure the Judge into his chair.

I could go on all day describing this film, but I feel like it wouldn’t be fair, because I wouldn’t want to spoil this masterpiece for anyone. That’s right: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a masterpiece, I ain’t afraid to say it.

It’s one of those musicals in which damn near every song works. Sure there might be too many of them, but I won’t deny that some of the musical numbers are completely dazzling… and/or chilling. This is a Burton film, so of course there’s noticeable ghoulishness here. The film is also sort of frightening, thanks mostly to Depp’s brilliant performance.

Burton has teamed with Depp many times, and honestly, he brings out the best in him here. Seeing him play this poor, psychotic man who is so blinded by revenge that he doesn’t realize the consequences of his actions is a tough thing to see, especially in the final moments, which pack a strong, strangely beautiful but utterly shocking punch. But Depp sells this thing beautifully. It’s a crowning achievement that gives me goosebumps damn near every time I see it, like the film itself.

The production design is awesome to say the least. At least the Academy had the right idea in rewarding that, and at least they nominated Depp for Best Actor and Colleen Atwood for her great costume design. But no Best Picture? No Best Director? No Best Make-Up? Supporting Actor (Rickman?) No Actress (Carter)? Why? Give me a reason.

Oh yeah, that’s right, THERE ISN’T ONE. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a perfect musical. It’s a film that gets damn near everything right. And you know what else? It manages to be both gloomy… and fun? Not even Les Miser-Snooze can say that.

People might have forgotten about this film since its release, but I never will. I say it’s one of the best films of the last decade, and anyone who doubts Burton of his filmmaking talents can blow it out their ass.

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