The X-iles

Review--Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd Review
NonEssential and NonExistent's NonsEnse
Push's Pad
Xtreme Unction's Labor of Love
Sacred Heart's Ambry
Satchie's "On the Safe Side"
Site Correspondence
Aye, There's the Rum

By Obfusc8er

********SPOILER ALERT********

I highly recommend seeing the movie before reading this review.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

General: Let's see... A cannibalistic horror-humor-Grand Guignol-
musical movie noir? Count me in. Twice thus far. This movie
exceeded my rather lofty, hype-fed expectations. The weeks of
obsessive, near Tourette-like anticipation were about as justified as
they can be. Every single technical and artistic aspect was
skillfully woven to serve the story. And that story is brilliant, often
hilarious, evocative, cynical--and ultimately devastating. If movie
critics put dibs on all the adjectives and I could only have one to
describe the movie, it would be "inspired". More thoughts at the

Note: "Sweeney" is derived from the Gaelic name Suibne meaning
"well-going". *snicker*

Writing: John Logan wrote one of my favorite movies (Gladiator).
Not sure how much adapting he did for Sweeney, but the spoken
dialogue was fine. The music itself was very good. While several
songs were intricate and appropriately dissonant, I didn't have
trouble picking up most of tunes. They did not seem at all
inaccessible as some people claim. I was singing a couple of them
within a day of hearing them. Sondheim's lyrics are where the
story's evil grin lies. "A Little Priest" "God, That's Good!" are
wonderfully awful and rife with gray, lumpy puns. "My Friends" is
just about the wrongest love song ever, and yet beautiful in its own
fragile way. "Epiphany" is riddled with overt foreshadowing. It
lends a sense of dread to the rest of the movie. Even if you don't
know exactly what's coming, at that point you find out that it's Big
and Dark and Shakespearean and are reluctant to see it evolve.
"Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" is one song I could listen to repeatedly.
Especially love Sweeney's fixation with the fact that the elixir is a
fake concoction of piss. It's just a hint at his capacity to obsess.
And bless Tim and whatever combination of
Sondheim/Wheeler/Bond is responsible for the old school, brain-
rattling organ music behind the opening credits/Ballad of Sweeney
Todd. That made me all a-tingle. Ditto for the sprinkling of organ
music throughout, including the slow-burn arrangement during the
final scene. It was utter perfection.

Direction and Technical Geeky Stuff: This material is a perfect fit
for Tim. Although powerful, the story is rather simple, and it lends
itself to Tim's embellishments. His films often roll around in a
black muck of melancholy, so it's not a surprise that he dove right
in for this movie. I sense that the base-level connection that drove
Tim to want to do this project is the same experience he's tried to
provide for the audience. And it worked for me. I was sucked into
Sweeney's world. The last shot was the single most haunting,
moving image I've ever seen in a movie, even surpassing the little
girl in the red coat from Schindler's List. Tim's twisted pieta - with
Sweeney silently pouring out his sorrow, covering his slain wife in
a sacrament of blood - will probably stay with me as long as I live.

The subdued, mostly static camerawork was fitting for an intimate
character study. Camera movement was used judiciously but
effectively. The best sequence was the ripping tour of London right
after Sweeney gets off the ship. It gives you a taste of the place,
showing all the facades as well as the darkened corners filled with
rats and harlots and sneering lechers. The angles were perfect, and
I loved the use of reflections--the broken mirror, the razor blade,
and even Sweeney's eyes as he's looking through the oven door at
the end. Tim's genius really shone through there. Didn't notice the
scene transitions, so I guess that means they were smooth and

Kudos to the techies involved with this film, including set design,
props, costumes, and lighting. The set and everything in it were so
alive and tangible. The blood was well done. No, it isn't
completely realistic, but it isn't supposed to be. It's just a bit off in
color and consistency as one of the film's many winks to itself as
well as the horror genre. The blood-pumping and actual slitting of
throats, however, seemed incredibly realistic to me. Assuming
Sweeney was pressing for the carotids (with one notable
exception), the spurting was about right. *Nitpick*: The amount of
blood loss from Pirelli and Turpin seemed a bit excessive for them
to be jerking and twitching and generally being alive as long as
they were. I really hope the sound effects crew gets some
professional recognition--or at least some cookies. They did a
really awesome job, from the quick *shwink* sound of the razors
being flipped open to the gurgle of a slit trachea to the crunch and
thud of bodies hitting the basement floor. Also, I thought the
cartoonish animation for the opening credits was fun (in a sick
way). Some people didn't care for it, but I like the way it was
rendered. The visual effects people outdid themselves in the oven
scene, IMO. It was horrifying and shocking. I *had* to see the
movie twice because my mind had blocked out most of the
resolution the first time, so consuming was that moment. And it
would not have worked at all if the visual effects had been lesser.

Acting: Let's start with Johnny. He can sing (with an accent!), he
can dance, he can draw, he can play guitar... He has more acting
talent just in his eyebrows than most people working in Hollywood
today. If he wasn't so self-effacing and generally nice, it would be
downright annoying. I've been wanting to see Johnny play a villain
in a movie for quite a while now. Although Sweeney is not a
typical villain, he does have a certain soul-sucking darkness that
Johnny hasn't really delved into before. It is an awesome thing to
watch him conjure up a character and disappear into it so fully that
you forget that there's acting, or even moviemaking, involved. The
movie is too self-referencing to allow for that throughout, but there
were several moments when I felt Sweeney's suffering, evil glee,
his bitterness, his slow disintegration. The viewer has to connect, if
not sympathize, with Sweeney in some way for this movie to work.
Johnny creates much of the pull with his eyes and facial
expressions. But I love the way the music affected his movement
as well, creating sweeping turns and wide slashing gestures with
unexpected grace. There was also a tension to his entire body, as if
he might spring into unbridled rage at any second, while other
times he seemed to slump under the weight of his cares. He also
used his voice masterfully in both speaking and singing, allowing
the words to crack a bit when Sweeney is being broken. And
Johnny has a lovely bellowing roar that suits Sweeney's most
animated moments, as in the shouted "Benjamin Barker!" before
killing Turpin. There have been observations that Sweeney wears a
scowl throughout most of the movie. This is true. However, to me
that gave more meaning, whether comedic or dramatic, to the times
when Sweeney smiles or squints or sneers, etc (as in "By the Sea",
when he squeezes Mrs. Lovett's knee and then looks completely
nauseated by the whole thing). Sweeney isn't a wide-ranging
character (to suit the vision of this movie), but Johnny found plenty
of nuances to stretch it some. And he looks absolutely huggable in
that black-and-white striped bathing suit. Hee! Favorite
lines/delivery: "How about a shave?" and "'Don't I know you?'
she said." I think this is nearly Johnny's best work--close behind
Wilmot in The Libertine. Not sure Sweeney could have been
played better for this movie, mind you, but Wilmot had much more
emotional range for Johnny to toy with.

Helena did a tremendous job with all of her physical action
interplayed with singing and dialogue. That couldn't have been
easy. And I like the desperate, airheaded, almost slutty quality she
created for Mrs. Lovett. The way she delivered the line
(paraphrased) "You don't really remember her, do you?" Oh, that
killed me. Grr! I wanted to strangle Mrs. Lovett right there.
Manipulative bitch! But it was marvelously done. I even felt really
sorry for her the first time I saw the movie, still in shock about the
oven scene. Less so the second time, but Helena's wistful, longing
take is more sympathetic than the character really has any right

Alan Rickman was good and sinister, although he really didn't get
a lot of screentime. He made the most of what he had, I think. His
conversation in the library with Anthony was chilling, and the
"Pretty Women" duet was one of my favorite moments.

Sacha Baron Cohen played the oily faker quite well. I love the
moment where he drops the accent. He also had a spectacular death
scene. Oh, and the Italian flag was hilarious.

Timothy Spall was absolutely fitting for his part, although I get the
feeling that he didn't have to put a lot of effort into playing yet
another slimeball character. But yeah, it worked.

Bower and Wisener were both just okay, to me. Bower's buggy
eyes looked ridiculous when he was prowling the streets, and he
didn't really sell me on being a sailor. He did the puppy-dog love
bit pretty well. Wisener did fine with her acting, but her voice was
painfully shrill.

Ed Sanders kicked ass. He sang really well. And the zombified but
determined look on his face right before killing Sweeney was just

I have to mention Laura Michelle Kelly, who played Lucy. What a
delicate dance of insanity and pitiable loss. She really knocked that
out of the park. This was the second-best performance in the
movie. Although the part is small, it is the most sympathetic one.
Lucy didn't in any way deserve or create the rotten life and
horrible death she suffered.

The Story: An interesting mix of political and social commentary
and general cynicism wrapped around the dark, sticky core of a
character study. It was funnier than I expected. I laughed through
about 80% of the movie both times, right up until "Nothing's
Gonna Harm You". And then things quickly take a turn for the
unfunny. The ending was powerful if not exactly "enjoyable".

This movie is unlike anything else I've ever experienced. The story
of a man who becomes a self-destructive monster after suffering
the cruelty of an unjust society is not unique, but it is done in a
unique way here. The first time I saw the movie, I came away with
a puzzling indecision on how I felt about Sweeney. When we meet
him, he seems sort of like death warmed-over already, but he isn't
a monster yet. He still has some sense of hope, I think. Poor sap.
But it's pretty clear that he already has some sort of revenge in
mind. The years in prison killed the happy man he used to be. His
need for revenge against Turpin seems natural. He's had nothing
but time to think about the ways and means. The change of focus
to wanton slaughtering of the hated upper class (Turpin's peers in
place of the judge himself), while not justified, it is somewhat
understandable in the framework of his pain and obsessive nature.
Thanks mostly to Johnny's ability to communicate pain and
sorrow, I could at least pity Sweeney throughout most of the

Then there's that ending. First off, I did not foresee any of the
details. I didn't figure out that beggar lady was Lucy until she said
"Don't I know you?" I also didn't realize to what extent Sweeney
had been mislead by Lovett. During the first viewing, I was
baffled, stunned that Sweeney could toss Mrs. Lovett into the oven
and *gleefully watch her die*. It seemed like he was taking the one
person who was ever on his side and tossing her in the rubbish. It
wasn't that I didn't pay attention, but that the shock of the oven
scene destroyed most of the details of the ending in my mind. For a
whole week, when I tried to recall the last half hour or so of the
show, all I could think of was the oven shot and the very last shot.
I've never before had an "oh my god" movie moment make me
completely forget what had preceded it.

The second viewing was even more enjoyable than the first,
because I was able to pick up on more of the humorous bits of
dialogue and lyric, as well as key hints and indications of how
manipulative Lovett was, and how menacing Sweeney was. They
really did deserve each other! Lovett has obviously been wanting
Sweeney/Benjamin from afar for some time ("I always had my eye
on you", or something to that effect). Between Turpin's lust for
Lucy and Johanna, Sweeney's lust for revenge, and Lovett's lust
for Sweeney, it creates some sort of odd love triangle where the
sides don't quite come together. But my goodness, what a
completely desperate and sad person Lovett is to omit the fact that
Lucy is still alive when she meets Sweeney. Egad, woman. And
when she says "And what did your Lucy look like?[...] You don't
really remember, do you?" that is just plain evil. Not that he isn't,
too, but he seems to have more reason for breaking under the
burden of his circumstances than she does. "Times is hard" is not
quite the excuse hard time is. Although Lovett is just as bad as
Sweeney, if not worse, she does seem to feel more regret for her
actions. She actually cries after locking Toby in the basement with
the purpose of having Sweeney dispatch him. The moment passes
quickly, but I think it's the first time that reality actually hits her:
she is never going to have that ideal life by the sea.

Also noted on the second viewing is how intimidating Sweeney is
to the people he tolerates. When he gives an order, it is obeyed. He
holds both a cleaver and his razor to Lovett's neck at various
points, but she seems to love him all the more for it. She's nuts.
She seems to just brush off these instances, but when he says to get
out, she gets out. Even with Anthony, who doesn't know of
Sweeney's murdering ways, he does what Sweeney tells him post
haste. Depp really did a great job of putting an edge of menace in
his voice, whether whispered or yelled.

The story really invites the viewer to sit in judgment of the
characters (irony points!), and in the end, nearly all of the
characters have done something despicable. Johanna gets away
fairly clean, and Anthony hasn't done much wrong except perhaps
a bit of coveting brought on by a crush. Nothing too bad, though.
And even though poor Mrs. Barker ended up in a life of
prostitution, she did nothing to put herself there, and likely didn't
have any other option after losing her husband and being raped
(and possibly thrown in the asylum) by Turpin. But even though
the rest of the characters seem to have brought their own fates
upon themselves, it is also a point that they are at least in part
products of their society and class system.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that it begs so many
"what ifs". What if Sweeney hadn't been interrupted the first time
he tried to kill the judge? Would he have found out and sent to
prison again? Would he have claimed his wife and daughter and
lived a better life, or was he already too far gone to have some
semblance of a happy ending? What if Lovett hadn't tried to imply
that Sweeney's wife was dead? Would he have brushed her aside
as she feared? Certainly he would have gone after his wife. So I
guess is could be said that Lovett came away with at least a brief
delusional semblance of the life she wanted. And a huge "what
if" might things have changed if Sweeney realized it was
Lucy that he was about to kill? Honestly, the second time I saw the
movie, I felt slightly ill every time I saw Lucy on the screen,
knowing how awful was her life and its ending.

One last observation: At the end, where Sweeney is holding Lucy's
body in his arms, he seems to somehow sense that Toby is there.
He actually tilts his head back, bearing his throat as some sort of
offering. Though passive, it's a borderline suicidal act. This part of
the scene looks simple, but what's going on inside the character
must be terribly complex. Wonderful stuff.

Flaws: I'll concede that the movie isn't perfect. Some of the sound
mixing was slightly off. Voices go from vibrant while singing to
sounding slightly canned when intercut with spoken dialogue in
places. I suspect that Tim and his techie crew probably ran out of
time on that.

Did I mention Anthony's buggy eyes? Oh yes. I did.

There were a couple of moments in "A Little Priest" where
Helena's soft voice was overwhelmed by the orchestration,
obscuring some really great lines. Or partial lines. So you can't
hear her set up a couple of jokes (such as the one about the actor
being compacter--but always arrives overdone). All you hear is
Depp giving the punchlines. I'm not sure if the fault is again with
the sound mixing or with Helena's singing. Or both.

As far as the story goes, I would have liked to have more than 2
seconds of Benjamin Barker pre-Sweeney...perhaps just a glimpse
of him in the prison or escaping from prison. Even if the movie is
titled Sweeney Todd and Barker is essentially dead and gone
before the ship hits the dock, I would have liked to have known
Benjamin Barker a little better.

Conclusion: Sweeney Todd really is a work of art. It's brave and
unflinching, and it will set up camp in your brain if you allow it. I
find it difficult to compare Sweeney Todd to any other movie, even
the black and white silent horror films it was fashioned after. It
will be interesting to see how this film fares in the future.

If you want more context for this review, here is a bit of

I love music, enjoy several musicals (both stage and screen--
especially The Phantom of the Opera), but have never seen the
Broadway musical production of Sweeney Todd. In fact I'd never
heard of the story until the movie was in production, so I came into
the movie knowing a general synopsis but not knowing how the
story ended. Obviously, I didn't miss whatever songs had been cut,
because I've never heard them. I'm not overly familiar with
Sondheim's other work beyond West Side Story. I saw A Funny
Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on stage once starring
Whoopi Goldberg. I know I laughed quite a bit, but don't
remember much beyond one (literal) running joke. I tend to enjoy
dark stories, especially if they include some gallows humor.
Graphic, bloody buckets of gore (Now with mystery meaty bits!)
in movies tend to not phase me at all. Bad, bad puns and/or irony
are a bonus. Bad puns used as foreshadowing=lurve.

Strangely, Tim Burton has not always been a favorite director. He
is an artist. But his vision can overwhelm the story, and it lends
itself better to some stories than others. Sometimes I'd much rather
see him play with charcoal and graphite and oils than a video
camera. That said, I liked what he did with Batman, loved Edward
Scissorhands, and thoroughly enjoyed Sleepy Hollow. I'm still not
sure what to think of the critic favorites Ed Wood and Big Fish. I
got a sense of the care that went into making them both, but a
small dose of those movies goes a long way with me.

I have slowly morphed into a mid-level drooling, squeeing Johnny
Depp fangirl over the course of the last few years (not so far gone
as to say that I love every movie he's ever been in, OMG
liek_whoa). He got my attention in Curse of the Black Pearl, but
the real fangirling didn't start until Dead Man's Chest. That being
the darker movie of the two, it allowed him to project a wider
range of emotions through Captain Jack, and that hooked me. After
that I browsed through my DVD collection and noticed that I'd
already bought one of Johnny's movies (From Hell), and didn't
even realize that it was the same guy playing lead. So, with some
abetting from agtmacgyver, I began to catch up with about 60% of
the man's acting career. For the most part, I've been impressed
(Pirates, Secret Window, Donnie Brasco for starters) and at times
stunned by his work (Finding Neverland and The Libertine). I sort
of tolerate his chick flicks, and a few projects just fell (The Ninth
Gate, The Brave *wince*--Sorry, dude!). Just keeping it real. I'll
even admit to the added ulterior enjoyment of his, uh, aesthetic
qualities. Hey, I'm human.