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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » March 5, 2008
The world of movies
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
March 5, 2008   
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Writing a musical about slashing people's throats seems an extravagant idea in itself, to put it mildly, and so turning a musical like that into a movie is a job for a rather unconventional director. The man who has taken on the challenge of making the big-screen adaptation is Tim Burton (Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), whose fondness for extravagance has been widely known ever since he entered the movie industry. This time, he has crossed another line, as while the film may simply appear astonishing to some, others will feel utterly repulsed.

Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Finding Neverland, Don Juan de Marco) is probably Burton's favorite actor, as Sweeney Todd is the sixth film the two have made together. Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a barber in London, who after 15 years of internment in an overseas colony returns home possessed by just one desire-revenge. He was wrongfully accused and sentenced as a result of a plot by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman-Die Hard, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Harry Potter series) and Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall-To Kill a Priest, Harry Potter series, The Last Samurai). The sentence cost him his beloved wife and baby daughter. After he sent Barker behind bars, Turpin seduced his wife and is now seriously considering doing the same with his daughter, who he keeps prisoner as a "foster child."

Barker returns to his old apartment on the first floor of a seedy tenement house on Fleet Street. The house belongs to Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter-Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Fight Club, Harry Potter series), a widow who runs a small restaurant serving, as she does not hesitate to say, "the worst pies in London." Barker finds his old silver razors, changes his name to Sweeney Todd and once again opens a barber shop. He starts by winning a street contest against the neighborhood's top barber, Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen-Borat, Ali G Indahouse). The loser, who used to be Barker's assistant, recognizes his former employer and attempts blackmail. Todd grabs a heavy teapot and a razor, and the first victim of the demon barber loses his life. Pirelli is the first of a whole legion-Todd even adapts the chair in his shop to automatically flip and throw slain customers into the basement. Why there? Because Mrs. Lovett processes the bodies into the topping for her pies, which thanks to the delicious meat become an instant hit with Londoners.

For the better part of Sweeney Todd, the screen flashes up graphic images of bloodbaths shown in great detail. While swishing razors rip open arteries and blood gushes out, restaurant patrons enjoy pies that only occasionally contain a sloppily minced finger with a chipped nail. For the finale, the viewer has the pleasure of seeing a live woman thrown into a furnace and a 12-year-old boy slit the throat of a man after drinking liters of cheap gin.

Even if you initially feel like rooting for Barker/Todd as he plots his revenge, only avid gore fans could really like any of the characters as the movie develops. The plot becomes totally irrelevant when it turns into a pretext to show even more bloody eruptions from slashed throats. Still, one Academy Award (for best art direction), two Academy Award nominations, two Golden Globes and a few weeks at the top of the box-office charts show that the aesthetics of Sweeney Todd have somehow appealed to most critics and viewers.
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