SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (DreamWorks, 2007) D: Tim Burton, w/ Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
This is Tim Burton’s finest moment. From Beetlejuice through Sleepy Hollow, Burton has revelled in Gothic trappings but shied away from the larger-than-life, soul-deep horror that lies at the core of that sensibility, replacing it with laughter. I’d always thought Burton either loved Gothic simply for its camp value or, conversely, feared its emotion. Maybe both.
Boy, was I wrong.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street tunnels so far into horror that it comes out the other end as tragedy. Burton is there at every moment, keeping the emotion high, harsh and at the centre, even as he gives full rein to his humour, love of the grotesque and extravagant visual sense. All this while people are singing.
Based on Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd tells the tale of a mid-Victorian mad barber and his landlady. He slits his customers’ throats; she makes the bodies into meat pies for her shop.
Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are perfect as Todd and Mrs. Lovett, and they’re Burton icons. Both outstanding actors give assured, nuanced performances filled with real human emotion, yet both have a doll-like quality that, heightened by costume and make-up, makes them ideal artificial inhabitants of this totally unreal world.
Much has been made of the cast doing their own singing. They deserve their accolades. Sondheim’s music is complex and difficult, much more sung dialogue than snappy tunes.
The extras cover Depp and Carter’s vocal education amply, but most of the fun is elsewhere. The making-of docs, though extensive and informative, have the blandness of press kit material. Look instead at the press conference and Burton and Depp doing a Moviefone segment for a sense of their personalities and how much fun they have together.
The three excellent historical docs fill in Sweeney’s history. One covers the story itself and its progress from 1840s London. Another details the social milieu the story depicts, and a third takes a close look at Grand Guignol theatre, which has little to do directly with Burton or Sondheim’s Sweeney but whose artistic fascination with the underclass has much in common with the impulses behind the story’s ongoing popularity.
EXTRAS Disc one: Burton, Depp and Carter on Todd. Widescreen. English, French, Spanish audio and subtitles. Disc two: Four making-of docs, three historical docs, press conference, Burton and Depp Moviefone segment, more. Widescreen. English, French, Spanish subtitles.