Revisiting Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Our look back at Tim Burton's movies comes to his latest, with Johnny Depp as Mr Sweeney Todd...

“I can guarantee the closest shave you’ll ever know.” – Sweeney Todd

The Recap

For his last film of the decade Tim Burton made a bit of an odd, if inspired choice by going for a subject matter which he has touched upon in the past, but within a genre that most would not associate him with. With echoes of Sleepy Hollow and more than a touch of the gothic dark ambience associated with his filmmaking, it is time to take a trip to Victorian London and to meet up with a barber who won’t give you the normal short, back and sides.

Sweeney Todd started life out as Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a highly talented Barber who is sentenced to hard labour in Australia for a crime he did not commit by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who wants Barker’s wife for himself. Filled with thoughts of revenge, years later he returns on a ship with young sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) to claim back his family.

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Upon his return he discovers his wife committed suicide and his daughter Johanna is now the ward of Turpin who now wants her in the same way he wanted her mother.  Ironically, Anthony also falls in love with Johanna but is shooed by Turpin’s henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).

With no family to go back to, Todd decides to reopen his barber shop above Mrs Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop and wait until the perfect moment arrives for his revenge to be exacted. 

On a visit to the local market Todd comes to blows with Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) and beats him in a shaving contest, which lures Turpin to his shop. Before his arrival, though, Pirelli comes to visit Todd, revealing himself to be Todd’s old assistant and wanting money to keep Todd’s real identity quiet. With Pirelli’s boy assistant Toby waiting with Mrs Lovett, Todd slashes Pirelli’s throat and hides the body.

When Turpin arrives, Todd gets him in position to give him the closest shave of his life, when Anthony busts in to announce his love for Johanna. Enraged, Turpin leaves and Todd decides that, until he gets a second chance at Turpin, he will kill those he deems are pushing the lower classes down even further.

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With the body count climbing, Mrs Lovett decides to make the best of the situation and uses the meat for her pies, which soon become the talk of the town. With both businesses doing well, Mrs. Lovett takes on Toby and proposes the idea of them all eventually living by the sea as one big, if dysfunctional, family. Todd still has murder on his mind, though, and soon Toby becomes worried for Mrs. Lovett and himself. Unaware of her involvement, she locks him up in the basement bakery where he discovers the grisly secret for himself.

Meanwhile, in a fit of rage of her refusing his marriage proposal, Turpin locks Johanna up in an asylum and Anthony is forced to rescue her. He hides her in Todd’s shop, unaware his murderous rampage is about to come to a bloody end when he kills an older beggar woman, Beadle Bamford and, finally, Judge Turpin.

As he goes to investigate Mrs. Lovett’s scream from the basement, he discovers the beggar woman was his wife, whom Mrs. Lovett had mislead him about her death as she wanted him for himself. For her crimes Todd pushes her into the baking oven. As he cradles his dead wife, Toby comes out from the shadows, razor in hand, and puts an end to the reign of Sweeney Todd.

Thoughts & Reaction

Movie musicals have gone through a resurgence over the past few years with hits such as Hairspray and Chicago sitting against the more forgettable such as The Phantom Of The Opera. Having been obsessed with the original staged production, Burton always wanted to turn it into a film, even going as far as approaching composer Stephen Sondheim in the 80s to get the project off the ground, but time passed and the project went onto Burton’s back burner.

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The project then fell into the hands of Sam Mendes, who appointed writer John Logan, of Gladiator fame, to pen the script. By 2005, Mendes left the movie to direct Jarhead and Burton jumped at the chance to direct the film he always wanted to make.

Once Burton was on board it came as a shock to no one that Johnny Depp was cast in the lead role, with Helena Bonham Carter taking up leading lady status. An unusual choice for leading man, Depp had never been known as a singer and was required to take lessons before production began. Although somewhat criticised for not being able to reach all the notes required in the role, he was mostly well received.

Filming began in London in February 2007 but was halted in the middle of production due to Depp’s daughter becoming seriously ill. (To his credit, Depp visits the hospital she was treated in each time he is in the UK now, dressed up as Jack Sparrow to read to the other ill children: totally unrelated to this article, but a lovely fact nevertheless.)

Due to this fact, a few more of the songs were removed than previously anticipated and the ghost narrators, who were to be played by Christopher Lee and Buffy‘s Anthony Stewart Head, were cut.

Again steering away from the use of too much CGI, Burton elected to have the seats built from scratch and for the blood to be as gory as possible. Although the studios involved were unsure about the level of violence depicted on screen, Burton believed it was what the movie needed and he stuck with it.

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Filming on Sweeney Todd was completed in May 2007 and upon release was well received, but the fact that it wasn’t marketed as a musical lead to some complaints from cinema goers who felt that they had been mislead, expecting a slasher horror movie and not a Broadway musical. That did not, however, stop it from becoming one of the most successful movies of that year.

So, as we draw to a close on the movies thus far of Tim Burton, we look forward to his future projects. Most recently he held a producer credit on the rather disturbing animated feature 9 and his next directorial project will be his version of Alice In Wonderland starring, of course, his two favourite staples Johnny Deep as The Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts. Also starring is Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover, with the voice talents of Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen and Barbara Windsor, among others.

Burton is also working on a film version of the 60s soap opera Dark Shadows, which Johnny Depp is also attached to.

So, it’s been a rollercoaster ride with some ups and downs, but I hope you have enjoyed taking a look back into the mind of Tim Burton as much as I have.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street Key Info:Released: 21st December 2007 (US) / 10th January 2008 (UK)Distributed By: DreamWorks/Warner Bros.Budget: $50,000,000Box Office Gross: $152,523,164Best DVD Edition: Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Two-Disc Special Edition