DVD Release Date:  April 1, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  December 21, 2007
Rating:  R (for graphic bloody violence)
Genre:  Musical
Run Time:  117 min.
Director:  Tim Burton
Actors:  Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener, Ed Sanders

And the Oscar for “Excessive Scenes of Spurting, Flowing, Pooling, Cascading, Gushing Geysers of Blood” goes to … Sweeney Todd!

In a year when Cormac McCarthy’s bleak prose found its match in filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (who adapted McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men) and Ian McEwan’s tale Atonement came to astonishing cinematic life at the hands of helmer Joe Wright, who also had directed Atonement star Keira Knightley in the recent film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about Sweeney Todd—known as the “demon barber of Fleet Street”—represents another great marriage of material to director. In this case, Sondheim’s macabre story is in the hands of director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp, who previously brought us the dark tales Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow.
 
The question on the minds of many viewers will be whether Depp can sing. The answer is, yes, he can, well enough to justify his casting here. His co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, is slightly less successful but still passable in the role of Mrs. Lovett. Their adequacy as singers allows us to focus on the story, told mostly through song, of Benjamin Barker, a barber sent to prison for years by the cruel Judge Turpin (a wonderful Alan Rickman) and his protector (Timothy Spall) so that Turpin can claim Barker’s wife for himself.

Released years later, an older, unkempt, and largely unrecognizable Barker christens himself Sweeney Todd and returns to his former home, determined to avenge the crimes against him. Those crimes are magnified when his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett—a pie maker who claims to make the “worst pies in London”—tells Todd that his wife poisoned herself after Turpin carried out his plan and she is now deceased, but the judge intends to marry Barker’s teenage daughter, who was only an infant when Turpin made her his ward.

After Todd publicly demonstrates his prowess with razors—in the process humiliating a shady businessman (Sacha Baron Cohen)—he sets up shop above Mrs. Lovett’s bakery and awaits his chance to dispatch his enemies. Soon the “demon barber” is killing his clients by slitting their throats, stabbing them in the neck, or by other gruesome means. After striking the lethal blow, Todd finishes off his victims by dropping their bodies through a trap door in the floor, whereupon they land head-first, with a thud, on the basement floor of Mrs. Lovett’s pie bakery. Their ultimate fate as the secret ingredient in Mrs. Lovett’s reformulated pies is grislier still.

These scenes of murder are not pleasant, to say the least, but somewhat offsetting all the grim tone is the story of Todd’s young friend Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) and his efforts to rescue Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), from the clutches of Judge Turpin. Still, their young love is overwhelmed by Todd’s sorrow and grief. Not even the love of Mrs. Lovett for Todd can deter his rage. In one song, “My Friends,” she expresses her longing for him while he, oblivious to her advances, sings lovingly of his knives.

Director Burton pulls off the film with finesse and dark beauty. It’s his best work in years, but it’s nearly relentless in the darkness of its interior and exterior shots, befitting the tone of Sondheim’s mournful songs. Unfortunately, the torrents of blood make Sweeney Todd disgusting in several spots, so much so that the film cannot be recommended, despite outstanding production design (by Dante Ferretti), striking cinematography by Darius Wolski, and Burton’s deft direction.

Moreover, the tagline for this film adaptation of Sweeney Todd is “Never Forget, Never Forgive.” Obviously, the film does not support biblical ideas of vengeance or forgiveness. Yet its depiction of the darkness of the human heart is not out of keeping with the Bible’s depiction of man’s state apart from God. “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit,” Todd sings. And although his anger is directed at the Londoners who wronged him, he speaks a broader truth about the fallen world. The Apostle Paul describes a world where the godless and wicked are “without excuse,” and whose “foolish hearts are darkened” (Romans 1:18, 20-21). “He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice” (Romans 1:28-29).

Many of the Londoners of Sweeney Todd fit this description, but the story’s strength is in recognizing that Todd himself has been given over to the same traits, and his life will demonstrate the truth of Christ:  “Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@earthlink.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Some profanity; crude term for bodily fluid.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Young boy drinks, and asks a woman to leave a liquor bottle with him, later, he’s shown passed out; Todd also drinks.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None; some cleavage is shown.
  • Violence:  Images of blood appear in the opening credits; a man is beaten and detained; a woman is said to have poisoned herself; a dead baby is shown; a man calls a knife his “faithful friend”; a young boy is beaten; a boy’s hand is cut by a razor; man is beaten to death and stuffed into a trunk; several throats are slit, and the bodies dropped on their heads; bodies are ground up and turned into food; a group of women attack a harsh caretaker; a person is incinerated.