Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Emo Todd

Although I can say that I've had a great time watching certain musicals, there is something about theater at large that I've always found to be unbearably pretentious. Gestures and facial expressions are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Simple messages and themes are often delivered cryptically and with too much fanfare, and there is always this unspoken rule that if you don't appreciate the show before you, you are a clod without culture. Well after trudging out of what is perhaps the bloodiest, most disgusting, and morally offensive musical in stage and cinematic history, I will happily don the title of Cultureless Clod, so long as I don't have to ever again see people chomping down on human flesh stuffed into meat pies.

Sweeney Todd is a grim endeavor to be sure. A revenge tragedy told on a most visceral level, it centers on a man, Benjamin Barker, whose sunny life as a husband, father, and barber was destroyed by a malicious judge (Alan Rickman) who lusted after Barker's wife. After being falsely imprisoned by the judge for fifteen years, during which Judge Turpin forced Barker's wife to poison herself with arsenic and then claimed their child for his own, Barker returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd to exact his revenge. He is helped in his dirty deeds by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of a pie shop strewn with moldy wares and cockroaches that boasts "the worst pies in London."

This is not a jolly old London, as fans of the stage musical or of this film already know. It is a sunless, poverty-stricken, sewer of humanity that likely haunted the worst nightmares of Charles Dickens. The production design by Dante Ferretti, who has spent a lot of time under the employ of many great directors (namely, Martin Scorsese), goes to great lengths to paint a portrait of dreariness that one can't help but admire for its thoroughness.

Of course, being a Tim Burton film, Sweeney Todd was sure to be a visual stunner. I can think of few filmmakers whose work plays on the most relentlessly surreal aspects of our sensibilities, and in Sweeney Todd he is at his most daring and avante garde. He painstakingly adheres to the spirit of the material and doesn't for one second let up as the blood flows and sprays in torrents, and the characters continue to achieve newer, more depraved levels of gruesome behavior. But herein lies the problem. Burton, per usual, with his concentrated focus on aesthetics, left little to no room for the heart to enter the picture. I felt no sympathy for Todd's seething moroseness, and what little I had for Mrs. Lovett was tossed into the meat grinder with the rest of the town's unsavory bits. I found myself sitting more in aghast than in admiration, and I was less than enticed by the musical selections whose occasional moments of cleverness ("For many a poor orphan lad, the first square meal he ever had, was a hot meat pie made out of his dad, from Sweeney Todd the Barber.") was overshadowed by saccharine ostentatious schmaltz.

Ultimately, Sweeney Todd left me floored, but not in a good way. Its audacity was alienating and often alarming, too much so for me to want to admire it up close. Watching it was like looking upon a piece of art that leaves one with only the ability to say: "Wonders of the human imagination will never cease" and then walk away with a sigh of relief, content never to glance upon it again.

This film is an experience to be savored by a very select crowd. If you are into self-indulgent, histrionic, caustic, pretentious, blood-drenched "high art" that can only be called "art" because it can't fit into any niche of normality, then Sweeney is your ticket to cinematic awe. For the rest of us, there is everything else.

Gouda's Final Grade: C-


  1. I'm so glad you said it. I have such a hard time with musicals too. I couldn't understand all the hype over "Chicago" and never made it through "Evita" (a rental thank God). I was a tad interested in this solely because of Johnny Depp. Of course the critics loved this, despite the gore, so I though it can't be that bad, but apparently-- it can.

    Tim Burton movies are hit and miss with me. I liked "Sleepy Hollow" even though it had its share of blood. But Christopher Walken fascinates me in a is-he-human? way. But any of the Burton Batman movies suck IMO.

  2. I despise Burton and his nightmarish imagery.

    This movie got so many glowing reviews from people with rectal flagpoles that I thought it wise not to partake.

  3. SQT -- I agree about Burton. I loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but most of his movies are also hit or miss... I always admire his visual flair, but that's about it. And Christopher Nolan firmly owns the Batman franchise now, thankfully.

    Hammer -- rectal flagpoles. LOL! Nice!

  4. Everyone's a critic. Cheer sAllie!!