Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street June 16, 2016
Consider Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes to be Sweeney Todd’s closest artistic relative. Painted in 1599, during the formative years of the Italian Baroque period, it takes its story from the biblical Book of Judith. It tells of its eponymous heroine seducing and then murdering the villainous Assyrian general, who threatened the livelihoods of her people. It’s a courageous tale more noble on paper than it is on canvas — when artistically rendered, we’re confronted by the story’s bloody ugliness, context hardly a necessity when repulsion plagues our senses.
A strange juxtaposition between the artificial and the visceral is the aspect of the painting that sticks out the most. The action seems to be taking place on a soundstage, the background almost entirely blackened save for the red velvet curtain that sensuously dangles above the characters. The blood gushing from Holofernes’s muscular throat resembles rich, scarlet paint; Judith herself looks more like an earthily beautiful stage actress, not a nation saving warrior princess.
But its emotiveness halts our skepticism. Holofernes’s callous anguish transforms him from detestable menace to unrefined victim. Judith’s elderly maid is characterized by her blatant misanthropy — she’s been searching for an emotional release for her entire working class career. But gaze upon Judith herself and you’ll notice that romanticism is not a part of Caravaggio’s forte. Here is a heroine simultaneously disgusted and determined, unsure of her actions on a moralistic level but nevertheless mightier when considering her underlying motivation. Maybe she’s the said good guy and Holofernes is the designated baddie she’s trying to defeat. But so much more lurks beneath the surface.
As is the case with 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a darkly comic musical that strays so far from the conventions of its genre that it feels otherworldly in its output. Because the same juxtaposition between the artificial and the visceral is immensely prevalent within its jagged limits; it mixes the guiles of the musical with the harsher realities of tragedy and murder and fatalism. It wears the guts of an otherwise endlessly optimistic genre on its black jacket as the world looks on in horror. How audacious it is to wear blood-stained cloths proudly and unsubtly.
It’s in a league of its own; the subversions it presents will perhaps never tire. Directed by the fittingly mercurial Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd finds its titular anti-hero in Johnny Depp, who gives one of the greatest performances of his career. As the film opens, Todd is entering London for the first time in nearly twenty years. Almost two decades earlier, he was falsely convicted of a crime he did not commit by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), a crooked official who lusted after Todd’s wife (Laura Michelle Kelly).
With the woman now believed to be dead, their daughter (Jayne Wisener) “adopted” by the abominable Turpin, Todd’s once-present optimism is in the negatives. What he really wants is revenge, though he’s perfectly aware that nothing’s going to change once he achieves it. No matter: carnage is cathartic.
Days into his arrival does he open a barber shop above the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a past acquaintance who cherishes him and isn’t much bothered by his thirst for blood. As he waits for his moment to kill the man who most notably wronged him, the despicable Turpin, he begins slitting the throats of paying customers with straight razors. Mrs. Lovett, a nihilist herself, joins in on the sinning and uses the bodies as a source of meat for her popular pies.
A happy ending isn’t in store for any of these people — the world in which they live is far too unforgiving for such nonsense — but we wouldn’t take it any differently. Sweeney Todd is a feral amalgamation of musical ideologies, black comedy, downcast drama, slasher flick goriness, and the consuming power of astounding performance. To be thrilled by it is a given, partly because it is so shocking, but also partly because a movie so ballsy is rip-roaring in and of itself. And it works, because material like this is best suited to the light-heartedly macabre ways of Tim Burton, and because Depp and Carter, his favorite performers, are actors who can turn themselves into anyone without losing their most idiosyncratic qualities.
The music, all written by Broadway heavyweight Stephen Sondheim, isn’t so much a standout of the form as it is a part of the film’s outré aesthetic. It provides for that added touch of broodingly cinematic chintz, and the ensemble delivers every impossibly complex lyric with assurance that never causes them to lose sight of the characters they’re portraying. It has the potential to lose its ability to persuade — such is key for us to go along with its utter outlandishness — but all involved in Sweeney Todd shapes the film into one of the best of the 2000s.
So maybe Burton lacks the slightly apprehensive hand of Caravaggio, and maybe Depp’s Sweeney Todd has none of the uneasiness of Judith. Maybe Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet is even the celluloid counterpart to Holofernes in life and in death: terrifyingly confident, menacing, and twisted on his most powerful days, bloody, agitated, and broken on his most fateful one. Comparisons aside, though, this is a gut-punchingly original film that merges beauty and horror with the deftness of Bava; to lose its edge is an impossibility. A