Murder, as only Depp can

BY BLAKE GOBLE
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 7, 2008

Johnny Depp has created a pretty cozy niche for his brand of acting.

Brian Merlos
Singing makes sense here. (Courtesy of DREAMWORKS)

He plays the quirkiest, kinkiest and most phantasmagoric characters possible. And Depp has managed to corner the market for those roles. Now he's back with another mad creation in Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a fast and furious macabre musical, where blood flow is not only common, but also integral to the story.

Benjamin Barker was once a well-respected husband and father, until he was unjustly sent to prison only to return some years later to his native London bloodthirsty for revenge. He wants to kill the men who sent him away, and will do whatever it takes to get them in his deathly barber's chair. With the help of waif-like meat pie matron Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, "Conversations with Other Women") and his skilled blades, Barker transforms into the depraved Sweeney Todd.

At the base level, "Todd" is a "revenge musical." Blood is let. Songs are sung. The audience has a general feeling of unease. But it's an overall satisfying experience. "Todd" is a great work of acting, singing and production. It's about a man looking for "bleeders," only to find too many. Ironically cheery music disturbs the landscape. London, like Todd, has a scuzzy, baroque and gothic presence. The setting, a bleak backdrop to an even bleaker story, makes the film look great. When Depp first emerges, his demeanor and hair grab the audience's attention right away. Every character has an eerily carnivalesque presence that demands attention, even when they upstage each other.

Though Depp showcases yet another memorable character, he's not the best character in this film. The cast in "Todd" is a strong and talented ensemble of British actors, such as Alan Rickman ("Die Hard") as the wicked and malicious Judge Turpin, who sent Barker away in hopes of accosting Barber's wife and daughter. Timothy Spall ("Enchanted") has the best greasy sneer you'll ever see as Beadle Bamford, Turpin's lackey and Todd's link to the judge. Sacha Baron Cohen ("Borat") works all 10 minutes of his screen time to perfection as Signor Pirelli, a flamboyant Italian barber and Todd's adversary. All of the cast members work together to create a great group of loons.

But the best performance in Todd belongs to Helena Bonham Carter, who steals the film as Mrs. Lovett. Boasting the "worst pies in London" the second we meet her, she's a tiny force to be reckoned with. Strangely attractive, doe-eyed beautiful and barking mad, Carter is perfect in this film and grabs attention every second she's on screen. When she dreams of romantic bliss with Todd, even her picturesque dreams of sunshine are ruined by her own filthy existence in London. She's the heart of "Todd," both the film and the man. She's crazy for Todd, and convinces him to turn his practice murders into pies. Yes, human pies.

The only real weakness comes from two subplots involving Todd and two younger boys. Pirelli's apprentice latches on to Lovett, only to deliver some last minute surprises. The other is the story of Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower, "The Dinner Party") who first arrives in London with Todd only to fall in love with Todd's daughter. Please.

"Todd" is a strong piece of Gothic film as well as a return to form for Burton ("Pee-wee's Big Adventure"). Boasting many memorable performances and a haunting atmosphere, "Todd" doesn't get bogged down in the usual triteness of other musicals, like singing out of place to express one's emotions. "Todd" is far more chilling than that.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

At Showcase and Quality 16

Dreamworks