A ship from a prison colony in Australia docks at a London port, and from it disembarks Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), fifteen years away, and his young sailor friend Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) who is impressed with the possibilities the capital promises. Benjamin is not so convinced and tells him of what led him to be deported in the first place; in happier times, he had been a successful barber with a new wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and a newer baby, but one of the city's powerful judges, Turpin (Alan Rickman) grew jealous and had Benjamin unjustly arrested and sent to the other side of the world... but now he's back.
Sweeney Todd had been a popular character in lurid fiction for decades until Stephen Sondheim offered him a sheen of respectability with his blockbusting musical and it had taken the opus almost as long to reach the big screen such was its creator's worries over how it might have been mishandled by Hollywood. He need not have concerned himself too much as with Tim Burton at the helm the result was both faithful to its source and the best live action production its director had come up with since the nineteen-nineties.
Helping him along were a cast who knew exactly what was expected of them, led by Depp, whose Benjamin takes the alias Sweeney Todd to ensure that he is not recognised and can begin work again - on his plans for revenge. As bitter and twisted as Todd is, the actor never makes him the whiny victim, sustaining the simmering resentment and aching loss that he nurses to keep his dream of attaining satisfaction alive. That dream is of course a nightmare for everyone else, part of the theme of how the wrongs of the past can corrupt the present, but Todd finds an ally in someone who recognises him and wishes to replace his wife, who is lost to him, in his affections.
She is Mrs Lovett, and there was some carping that Helena Bonham Carter, as Burton's real life partner, shouldn't have been given the role as it smacked of favouritism. Clearly those naysayers had not seen the superb performance that Carter offered up, providing both much needed humour without labouring the grotesquerie and enhancing the tragic qualities: whatever Todd thinks, he had found his perfect match in the pie-shop-owning widow. They do become allies, turning Lovett's establishment from selling the "worst pies in London" to a roaring success, and all because of the secret ingredient.
That ingredient being human flesh, provided by Todd's slaying of his barber customers on the first floor and neatly dispatched below to the cellar via a handy trapdoor. Burton and his team create an atmosphere that is not only seedy and oppressive - there's barely a shot lit in strong daylight - but also with a sense of futility, as if Todd has taken his vengeance to such extremes that he has damned himself and everyone around him and there's nothing that will salvage their souls. Only the young lovers, Anthony and Todd's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), seem like a distraction from this, with a subplot about Anthony's rescue of the young woman from the clutches of the evil but lovelorn Judge Turpin altogether too wholesome for its surroundings, but I suppose we needed a ray of hope after the bleak and over-the-top bloody finale. Appropriately packed with operatic emotions, Sweeney Todd shows what a keen combination of musical and horror can achieve, and that's plenty.
(Warner's two-DVD edition has a wealth of featurettes on the stars, the director, Sondheim, the design, and more.]
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.