A clipper ship sails into fogbound London, bearing a spectral figure at the helm observing the cityscape ahead of him. And with the score luring you in like some mythical siren, The place swirls with mists and drips with bloody menace. sailing into the jaws of Hell. One-time barber Benjamin Barker has returned from exile and is set on taking revenge on the man who took away his wife and daughter. Changing his name to Sweeney Todd, he seeks out the malevolent Judge Turpin. With the help of Mrs. Lovett, he reopens a barbershop above her pie shop, and biding his time, they make a killing with the new ingredients in the pies until his plans for cutthroat revenge are fully cooked to perfection.
Depp and Bonham-Carter make the perfect couple, the walking undead through the grime of the city, pallid, tortured souls haunted by their tragic pasts and inner demons. They try to mould an honest living from the misfortune that has been forced upon them, until mania inevitably begins to ferment their blood lust.
Depp deftly wields his razors like a western hero, offering the smoothest shave but also the smoothest death. Here is an Edwards Scissorhands less concerned with sculpting than with frenzied slaughter. His eyes have sucked in the darkness that is eating him away; indeed he looks like a sleep-deprived ghoul unable to rest in his tomb, a rat scavenging in the sewers of London society.
This is Depp’s sixth collaboration with Burton, and it’s also his best. Depp’s Todd is a tragic hero of Shakespearean proportions, though no-one can deny his need for the revenge which will consume him.
Whilst Depp and Bonham-Carter provide the macabre centre, the more traditional young lovers in peril are Benjamin’s teenage daughter Johanna (played with the right degree of injured innocence by Jayne Wisener), who has become Turpin’s reluctant ward, and the love-struck young sailor Anthony, exuberantly played by Jamie Campbell Bower.
Foppish Sasha Baron Cohen adds colour, quite literally as deceptive turquoise-clad showman Pirelli, grotesquely incongruous in such murky surroundings. Threatening Todd’s newly laid plans, Pirelli deservedly becomes the demon-barber’s first victim.
Alan Rickman growls his way into the merciless form of corrupt Judge Turpin, whose behaviour is lower than the cockroaches in Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, whilst Timothy Spall’s spiteful Beadle Bamford is an injured cur, loyally following his master. They echo characters straight out of a Dickensian rogues’ gallery, and could easily be imagined sipping a beer with Bill Sikes and Fagin.
Burton has set out to make a horror film first and a musical second, a symphony in shadows. Stephen Sondheim lyrics seem to thrive in this rank black hole of humanity, and the songs pierce through the dark to give voice to unrelenting revenge, a co-conspirator in the darkening events that unfold, as well as a tribute to gothic horror that relishes the murderous undercurrents.
When he embarks on his mission, it’s a frenzy of throat-slitting and blood gushing that is both brutish and absurd, balanced very carefully between horror and comedy, not unlike Vincent Price’s vengeance spree in Theatre of Blood, with echoes of Monty Python and of course, The Corpse Bride.
Equally, it is the most technically and creatively satisfying transformation of stage musical to screen in many years. The music envelops you in the putrefying landscape of the place and its people, cloaking the sunlight. The film plays out with a tragic inevitability, without letting happiness have the final say. Darker, moodier and more deranged than any of his other films, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Burton’s most disturbingly delightful film to date.