Burton’s barbarous barber

Despite the success of films like Moulin Rouge and Chicago, musicals remain risky ventures for Hollywood. Although recent years have seen a resurgence in this once-widespread genre, such films often struggle at the box office.

However, despite the difficulty in creating a hit movie musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – which tells the story of the title character’s bloody quest for revenge against the man who destroyed his family – has gained massive support from audiences and critics alike.

The film stars Johnny Depp as Todd and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, his neighbor and accomplice. Having escaped his exile overseas on false charges, Todd – once a barber named Benjamin Barker – returns to London and soon re-opens his barbershop with lethal intentions.

Although crime author Peter Haining once asserted that Todd was an actual person whose killing spree took place in the early 19th century, these claims have never been confirmed. Regardless, the character of the lethal barber Sweeney Todd dates back to the mid-1800s and has appeared intermittently in various forms ever since.

Todd’s story was first set to music in 1979 when composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim turned the tale into a Broadway musical starring Len Cariou as Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. Two more productions followed in 1989 and 2005, with the most recent revival starring theater mainstay Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris.

The film adaptation retains much of the show’s score, although some numbers were eliminated and others were trimmed to better suit the big screen. The most noticeable omission is “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” in which the ghosts of Todd’s victims gather to tell his story. As the opening number of the stage production, this tune is typically reprised periodically during the show.

Even though the sequence was shot for the film, it was later cut and its tune was used to compose the film’s main titles sequence.

The sixth collaboration between Depp and director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Sweeney Todd is anchored by the lead performances of Depp and Bonham Carter, who – like the film’s entire cast – do all their own singing. Their characters, jaded by years of harsh reality, are effectively represented by the two actors as if they were ghostlike shells of their former selves. This otherworldly motif is bolstered by the film’s distinct art direction, lending it an eerie, bizarre tone that befits the subject matter.

In addition to the exceptionally complex performances by Depp and Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd features an outstanding supporting cast. Alan Rickman is pitch-perfect as the treacherous Judge Turpin, the object of Todd’s vengeance, and Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame pops up for a brief but memorable turn as the flamboyant Adolfo Pirelli.

A number of new faces make strong impressions as well. Jayne Wisener – one of the few trained singers in the cast- perfectly inhabits the role of Todd’s long-lost daughter Johanna and coos her big number “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” with a lonely passion suitable for the character. Jamie Campbell Bower also lends the film some much-needed brightness as Anthony Hope, an optimistic sailor who becomes infatuated with Johanna.

The real surprise, though, is the moving performance of Ed Sanders as Toby, a young boy who grows close to Mrs. Lovett during the course of the film. In “Not While I’m Around,” he professes his care for her and vows to keep her safe from the evil that surrounds them. Sanders’ sweet and sincere performance transforms the scene into one of the most poignant in the film, adding further dimension to an already complex tale.

With awards season already underway, the film’s prospects are bright thus far. It has received Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture (Musical or Comedy), and it is likely to earn similar support at the 80th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 24. In fact, Depp is widely considered to be among the frontrunners for the Best Actor statuette.

Possessing a unique tone that is simultaneously tragic, darkly humorous and frightening, Sweeney Todd ideally encapsulates the story of its source material, transforming it into one of 2007’s best films and one of the finest movie musicals ever created.

Grade: A Rating: RRun Time: 106 min.