Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Sacha Baron Cohen
Written by: Stephen Sondheim (Musical)
John Logan (Screenplay)
Directed by: Tim Burton

September 1982. I sat spellbound in front of my television as HBO broadcast a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway hit Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, the story was twisted, with humor dark as an unlit cave, and at its core lurked a deeply pessimistic view of the world and of humanity. Needless to say, I thought it was utterly amazing!

Now, 25 years later, director Tim Burton has brought the horror musical to a much larger screen, and in the process, he has created a modern masterpiece.


Johnny Depp stars as Benjamin Barker, a poor but happy barber with a loving wife and infant daughter.

“There was a barber and his wife,
And she was beautiful.
A foolish barber and his wife.
She was his reason and his life,
And she was beautiful,
And she was virtuous,
And he was… naive.”

All is right with the world until a lascivious judge (Alan Rickman) sets his eyes on the beautiful Mrs. Barker. Mad with lust and power, the judge arranges to have Benjamin arrested, wrongly convicted, and imprisoned. With the barber of Fleet Street out of the picture, the judge is free to make his advances.

Fifteen years have now passed, and Barker has escaped. Bitter and hollow, he returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd.

“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 pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London.”

There, he meets shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who informs him that his wife committed suicide, and that his daughter is now a prisoner in the judge’s home. Filled with rage, Sweeney retrieves his beloved razors and begins hacking and slashing the throats of those responsible for all his misery.


(Sung in unison…)

”You there, my friend,
Come, let me hold you.
Now, with a sigh,
You grow warm
In my hand…
My friend,
My clever friend…”

“I’m your friend too, Mr. Todd
If you only knew, Mr. Todd.
Ooh, Mr. Todd,
You’re warm
In my hand…
You’ve come home…
Always had a fondness for you,
I did.”

As with Joss Whedon’s brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, the producer’s were wise to give those with limited singing ability less to sing. Purists may complain that several numbers from the Broadway production have been cut, but keep in mind that Depp, Bonham Carter, and Rickman are not trained singers. They’re actors. What they lack in voice, however, they more than make up for with rich performances, using their eyes and body language to convey emotions like bubbling rage, secret longing, and menace, bringing Sondheim’s lyrics to vivid life on the screen.

And the talent behind the camera shows just as much enthusiasm for the material. While true to his source, John Logan’s screenplay has made the production less “stagy,” setting the action throughout London. And Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s production design work in congress to paint this vast tapestry of turn-of-the-century horrors, creating haunting images that could have sprung from one of Dickens’ worst nightmares. The final touch comes from Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Nana Fischer’s make-up design, providing a very Goth appearance to Sweeney and his friends.


“Demons’ll charm you with a smile, for a while,
But in time…
Nothing can harm you
Not while I’m around…”

Director Tim Burton is no stranger to the horror-themed musical, having guided both The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride through production, and he is working with familiar themes of loneliness and the outsider as hero. For the first time, however, he has released a picture with an R-rating, giving us body parts and Monty-Pythonesque gluts of blood with every throat slashing. Yes, my friends, more than ever before, his macabre sense of humor is allowed free reign, and at times, we are laughing as we grimace, and grimacing even as we laugh.

This is Burton’s masterwork, the fusion of style and substance, of art and ideas, and it is sure to please his fan base as much as it will romance more mainstream success.


“And life is for the alive, my dear
So let’s keep living it,
Just keep living it
Really living it!”

Few creative partnerships have yielded more fruit than that of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and none have tasted so sweet as this. The duo have always done solid work independently of one another, but when they decide to collaborate on a project, it creates a very real sort of dark magic. I left Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street singing Sondheim’s tunes, but it is what Burton and Depp brought to the work that stuck with me long after the music faded from my memory.

This is one of the best pictures of 2007; a cinematic experience that, like great theater, just gets better with each subsequent viewing, and I for one cannot wait to catch this company’s next performance.

4.5 out of 5 stars.