A barber who has been wrongfully imprisoned for fifteen years returns to London to extract his revenge on the judge who wronged him.
If I’m being honest, I think this is the best film Burton has made since Big Fish, and if I’m being even more honest, I, personally, find this to be his most enjoyable film since “Ed Wood”. This is a movie that’s tailor-made for my preferences; it has dark, gloomy production design; it’s set in Victorian London; it’s a musical; and it has enough horror elements and graphic violence to assuage Dario Argento’s (“Deep Red”) insatiable bloodlust. This is one of the first ‘R’ rated movies that I paid to see by myself in theaters (I also so it on off-Broadway); I had the soundtrack in my car all through my senior year of high school and into college. And all this week, prior to watching this film, I’ve been bombarding myself with the tunes of “Sweeney Todd” because I like the music so much. And as I sat down to watch this film and the first sung words met my ears (I have sailed the world, beheld it’s wonders…) I couldn’t help but smile…What I guess I’m trying to say is; if you want an unbiased review of this film don’t look here. I love this film unabashedly.
“It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”
As with many Tim Burton films, the art direction is something that really calls attention to itself; some people love it, some people hate it. I’m not going to debate whether or not Burton’s style is a little too gaudy at times, or overly repetitive when compared to his other films. Some people love Burton, some people hate him; to me, it’s just a preference of taste- and his work has never bothered me much. This film is divided into two color palettes; one bright and sunny for memories and dreams that might come, and dreary and desaturated for the everyday grim world (subtlety as far as design goes has never been Burton’s strong suit, but again, that doesn’t bother me). I love the look and feel of the dilapidated London streets, and this time through I actually found that it was a lot more meaningful than the other times I’d gone through.
A lot of this film makes jabs at the class war between high and low-income people, and that’s something I never really caught before this watch through. Even from the beginning that theme is established: a poor barber, Benjamin Barker aka Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp, “From Hell”), is preyed on by a wealthy gentleman, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”), without any sort of repercussions for more than fifteen years. There are direct references to this theme in the songs (“In all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two- there’s the one staying put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face” -from the song ‘Epiphany’ and “The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above! How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below!” from the song ‘A little priest’). The production design really lends itself to showing who is a higher class individual and who is the lower class one- the lower class is usually grimmer, less vibrant colors, while the higher class is almost always in brighter colors. This is apparent in Judge Turpin’s home and the way he dresses, but it’s also evident with Senor Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen, “Hugo”) and the way he presents himself. The theme is actually incredibly important to the story overall, because it gives another element to Todd’s psyche; he’s not just a barber out for revenge- he’s all of us in the lower or middle class who are fed up with the way high society reaps all the benefits for the work of the lower class. He’s a representation of the bitter anger in all of us that wants to lash out at the injustices of the world.
However, beyond the production design and the layers of subtext, there’s the story and music. I find the story and the music to be intertwined, as this is a musical. Both are absolutely wonderful. As I mentioned above, I had the soundtrack to this in high school, and I’ll admit that I still remembered quite a few of the songs in their entirety. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listen to Alan Rickman and Johnny Depp’s duet in ‘Pretty Woman,’ nor can I tell you how many times I’ve snarled along with Depp during ‘Epiphany,’ how many times I’ve chortled at the lyrics in ‘A Little Priest,’ or whistled the tune to ‘No place like London.’ The music in this movie is magical, beautiful, haunting, and funny; it’s the primary reason I return to this world over and over again. The darkly humorous tone really comes through during songs like ‘By the Sea,’ or ‘A Little Priest’- (ST: ‘We’ll take the customers that we can get!’ ML: ‘High-born and low, my love!’ ST: ‘We’ll not discriminate great from small! No we’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone,’ Both: ‘And to anyone, at all!’) The story itself is a tale of revenge, and it’s incredibly satisfying while at the same time incredibly sad. Todd is truly a man who has lost his way, but despite that we still feel the urge to cheer him on, to kill Turpin, for he might be worse than even Todd. As Todd gets closer to his vengeance he gets further away from being Benjamin Barker. As far as acting goes, everyone does a fine job, but none quite as good as Depp himself. This is my favorite of his roles that he’s played in at least the last decade (though I will admit his surprise appearance in “Tusk” was pretty genius- no where near this level, but it made me laugh). The late great Alan Rickman was wonderful as well. Helena Bonham Carter (“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”) knocks it out of the park as Mrs. Lovett. Even Edward Sanders (Hugo), who has only had three roles in cinema to this day, was fantastic as Toby.
I warned you above that this would not be an unbiased review, and I feel I’ve kept true to my promise. This is a film I love, and I will defend to my grave that it’s one of Burton’s best. This movie creates a world that is full of spellbinding characters, magical music, and darkly delicious humor. It’s a film that has in my top 100 films of all time since I’ve seen it, and I don’t think it will leave anytime soon. If you like musicals, murders, or meat pies this movie is made for you.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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