MONKEY REVIEW: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

April 3, 2008

Superlative film adaptation by Tim Burton of Stephen Sondheim’s celebrated 1979 Broadway musical about Sweeney Todd, a murderous barber in 19th century England, played here by Johnny Depp in an Oscar nominated performance. After being imprisoned for fifteen years on false charges by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), Todd returns to London to seek vengeance on the judge for the loss of his wife, who has poisoned herself in his absence, and his daughter, now the judge’s ward. While he waits for his chance with the judge, Todd goes on a killing spree, aided by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who is infatuated with Todd and provides him with a novel and profitable way of disposing of the bodies he quickly accumulates. To say this is dark subject matter is something of an understatement, and it’s violent enough that the original American version required some cuts to get an R rating (the international version is reportedly intact), so this is definitely not a film for the squeamish. That said, what saves the movie from merely being an exercise in camp style or art direction (the latter of which justifiably won an Oscar) is Burton’s focus on his amazing cast, which gives Sweeney Todd the emotional weight it needs. This focus is crucial, because while the musical has comic and romantic overtones, the story is above all a tragedy about how violence and vengeance poisons the soul. Depp, Bonham Carter and Rickman are all required to sing as well, and while they are perhaps not world class singers, they are most effective here. My only problem with the movie is its lightning pace, as it often seems in too much a rush to get where it’s going, especially during the final act. However, the pace may be a concession to audiences who don’t ordinarily see musicals, and, considering how successful the rest of the movie is, it’s a relatively small quibble. Sweeney Todd is entertainment on a grand scale, aimed squarely at intelligent, adult audiences. It’s also Burton’s best work in years, and one of his best movies ever.

MONKEY RATING: ZERO MONKEYS (BUT THEY’D BE DEMON BARBER MONKEYS IF THEY WERE NEEDED)

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

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