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Empire List #490: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Call me a cynic, but I like to see a little blood spill around the holidays. When I was around eight years old my favourite Christmas movie was “Home Alone,” but as I grew older I gravitated towards movies like “Die Hard,” “Batman Returns,” and “Bad Santa.” There is just something about superimposing graphic violence over the cheery setting of the Christmas environment that provides such a beautiful contrast. It’s like every year the malls of the western world try to convince everyone that the month of December (and November) is some magical time of year just because it used to be a religious holiday. Now Christmastime is an excuse to consume massive amounts of food and buy products sold at the malls where the decorations have been in place since late October.

So given my more and more cynical approach to the holidays, imagine my joy when in 2007 I saw the trailer for “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” directed by Tim Burton, the most visually arresting gothic director in the world. There is a musical about a demented barber hell-bent on revenge that slashes the throats of his customers and serves their remains in meat-pies? Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall headline the cast? And it will be released a few days before Christmas? SAVE ME A SEAT!

Sadly for me, in 2007 I was studying in Sherbrooke and spending the holidays at my mother’s apartment in Quebec City, where “Sweeney Todd” was only released in French. Since there was no way I was going to watch Johnny Depp sing and hear another actor’s voice do the singing, I chose to wait until the movie would come out on DVD. I am a patient man, and there are things worth waiting for, a blood-drenched Tim Burton movie being among those things.

A few months later I was at my mom’s place once again for my reading week and decided to go to the Super Club Videotron, the local video store, to take advantage of their “rent three movies for seven days” special. Among those three: the movie I should have watched the previous Christmas.

Right from the opening credits you can tell that is going to be a visually striking movie: the names of the cast members appear onscreen as the cameras travels over animation of blood running down the streets of London and meat seeping from a gigantic grinder.

The story, based on a play by Stephen Sondheim, revolves around a barber named Benjamin Barker in what appears to be 19th century London. An honest and good man, Barker is sent to the prisons of Australia by the corrupt judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) for a crime he did not commit. The reason for this injustice is that Turpin has eyes for Barker’s wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and eventually for his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener).

Fifteen years later Barker returns to London with a new name, Sweeney Todd, and bloody revenge is on his mind. A young sailor called Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), whose name is well deserved, accompanies Todd on the ship bringing them to London. Upon seeing Johanna in judge Turpin’s house, Anthony falls in love with her at first sight and offers the only hope of happiness in the entire story, for only he and Johanna are the only entirely innocent characters who cross path with Todd.

Upon returning to his former barbershop in Fleet Street, Todd is greeted by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of the pie shop on the first floor. She recognises Barker and informs him that Lucy poisoned herself after being raped by Turpin who now has custody of Johanna. Losing all faith in humanity, Todd vows revenge on the whole world and restructures his old barbershop into an improvised butcher shop. When customers sit in his chair, he slices their throat with his knife, and throws their body down into the basement, where Mrs. Lovett uses the cadavers to make what turns out to be the best meat-pies in London.

This being after all a musical, the characters often break into songs for exposition scenes, scenes of longing, action scenes, and of course fantasy scenes. These actors are not professionally trained singers, but they pull it off quite well. Once Depp is in character and holding his bloody knife the last thing on your mind will be whether or not he can sing.

All of the actors are perfectly suited for their roles. Depp, a chameleon of a performer plays Todd as an unrepentant man with tunnel vision. He is so focused on his vengeance that he does not care who gets hurt in the process, even if it may end up being his own daughter. Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett foolishly believes she can win the heart of a man who has no heart left to give. Alan Rickman, an expert in playing villains, is ideal for playing a man who deserves to sit on Todd’s chair.

Also worthy of mention is Sacha Baron Cohen who has the short but pivotal role of Adolfo Pirelli, a rival barber. Sporting a thick Italian accent and colourful clothes that contrast with the grim London streets, Pirelli resembles more a magician than a barber. He knows about Todd’s past and should keep his mouth shut instead of opting for blackmail.

This movie may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas release, but I believe it is fitting. It seems that in December cheerfulness is jammed down consumer’s throats in the shape of Christmas lights, Christmas songs, and corny Christmas movies that play on TV every year. It makes for a nice change to see a movie with such a dark tone for once.

Yet the movie does show the goodness of man amongst all the carnage. The sailor Anthony and Johanna have a chance at a happy ending. One of the best moments in the film is when Anthony rescues her from a mental institution and leaves the evil warden to be murdered at the hands of the inmates. They both have a chance to escape the madness, whereas Todd is doomed in his quest for revenge.

When the movie was over, my mom said that Tim Burton doesn’t use a lot of bright colours in his movies. “Except for red” I pointed out.

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