One meat pie that won’t go down easyAlthough a lot of people use the terms “tragedy” and “sad story” interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between the two.
As I learned in 10th grade English class, the difference from a literary standpoint lies in the identity of the wrongdoer: If someone is merely the target of another person’s ill will, it’s a sad story. But if someone is the root of his own undoing, then it’s a tragedy.
In “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the main character and namesake of the film, is the victim of both a sad story and a tragedy.
First comes the sad story, which is summed up in two songs in the opening of this movie musical. Years ago, a skilled barber named Benjamin Barker lived in London with his beautiful wife and daughter. But the sinister dealings of the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) robbed Barker of his wife and child, leaving the poor barber to rot in prison.
But the real guts of the film lie in the tragedy, which begins as Barker, now living under the alias Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) returns to London after his escape from prison.
Hoping to find a patiently waiting wife and daughter, Todd instead finds a London with much more to be desired. As he learns from his widowed neighbor Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), Turpin raped his wife as part of a ghastly spectacle, leading to her suicide. Then Turpin adopted his daughter, only to keep her locked up in his house. Then there’s the actual city of London, rotting in its filth and corruption.
Depp as Todd sums up the barber’s bitterness best with his spat-out words, the recurrence of which forms the film’s thematic refrain: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / and it’s filled with people who are full of sh*t / and the vermin of the world inhabit it.”
With such a cruel fate, it’s no wonder that Todd thinks only of seeking revenge on the evil Turpin. Such obsession leads Todd on a murderous rampage, earning him the apt epithet “demon barber.”
Director Tim Burton was right to insist on Depp for the role of the bloodthirsty barber. No other actor could convey the macabre mind of the film’s hero with such intensity and skill. Depp as Todd is noir in every sense of the word, brooding, with his brow permanently furrowed.
The Burton-Depp partnership is one that runs long and deep, with such past titles as “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Corpse Bride.” The latter film also featured the addition of Carter, who is the perfect actress to complete this dark trifecta.
Burton has likewise precisely selected every other member of his cast. Rickman as Turpin is flawless with his droll, blase attitude toward evildoing. Timothy Spall, as seen in the recently opened “Enchanted,” is the perfect villain’s lackey in this film as well. Here, the jowly, snaggle-toothed Spall takes on the role of Beadle Bamford, who does Turpin’s dirty work.
Then there’s Sacha Baron Cohen as the bombastic Italian Adolfo Pirelli, London’s reigning barber when Todd sails back into town. Cohen adds the ostentatious Italian to his hilarious repertoire of characters, most frequently showcased on “Da Ali G Show.” Pirelli’s peacock-like parading in his scenes provides a visual counter to Todd’s seething, morose decay.
But even with all this ― a dream team of actors, a Stephen Sondheim score and a horrifically imaginative libretto ― the effort just seems to fall flat. As seen in The Corpse Bride, which similarly had an all-star foundation, sometimes all the talent in the world can’t save a film.
It’s not a chemistry problem, either, as Carter and Depp are undeniably great together. I just get the sense that everyone involved in this film tried a little too hard to shock the audience, from the blaring score to an excessively grisly scene of death by oven.
Plus, something was just too predictable about this slice-and-dicer. Although I went into Sweeney Todd blind, with nary a Wikipedia read-through, I knew in about 10 minutes how all this murderous mayhem would end. sFinally, weak stomachs beware: This film is only for those who can stomach a lot of bloodshed and cannibalism.
Too bad this movie didn’t fare better. Such a sad story... or is it a tragedy?
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Horror, Musical / English / 116 min.
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]