When casting ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street’, Tim Burton made his partner Helena Bonham Carter audition. Nine times. So, has the healing begun?
ONCE everyone’s favourite English rose – thanks to her roles in the likes of A Room With A View (1985) and Howards End (1992) – the delightfully kooky and genuinely aristocratic Helena Bonham Carter finally managed to shake off her corset queen image in 1999 when she popped up as Brad Pitt’s bit of foul-mouthed rough in Fight Club.
From there on in, Carter started delivering the kind of sexually-charged performances – in movies such as Women Talking Dirty (1999), Novocaine (2001) and Conversations With Other Women (2005) – that would make your average Merchant-Ivory fan choke on their tea and scones.
Having met her current partner during the illfated 2001 remake of Planet Of The Apes, Carter and writer-director Tim Burton last month added a little sister to their family for their four-yearold son, Billy Ray, to play with.
That the couple, who got engaged in October 2001, are still together after the making of their latest movie (an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) is something of a relief for both parties, given that Carter has called the production “one of the toughest, most gruelling rites of passage we went through in our relationship”.
PAUL BYRNE: So, Helena, do you want to talk about it?
HELENA BONHAM CARTER: Yeah, it was tough, it was definitely tough. Auditioning, and not knowing if he wanted me, and he was tortured about whether I wasn’t right, but then Sondheim chose me, so that made it okay. But it was tough on both of us, making sure that I delivered, that he delivered.
You play Mrs Lovett, the pie shop owner who takes in Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd just as he goes on his roaring rampage of revenge against the judge who took away his wife and child and sent him to prison. It’s a role you had to do nine auditions for? You clealy didn’t want to get the Linda McCartney tag here…
Absolutely. It wasn’t an easy gig to get, but then again, I didn’t want to be cast for the wrong reasons. I knew Tim wouldn’t cast me for any obvious reasons – for any emotional reasons. He’d never do that. It was kind of a good thing to go through all those auditions, because, by the time I’d gotten the part, I knew that I really deserved it.
Tim has dreamt about adapting this musical for the big screen ever since he first saw it at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, back in 1980. Does that mean you’ve had years to prepare for this role?
No, no, no, I hadn’t, because he was going to do Ripley, and suddenly that collapsed, and he had time on his hands. I think it was me who told Tim he should try and make this, this dream project, but it all had to happen very quickly. Which meant we had very little time. It was all much shorter than usual, and I had three months of going to this poor teacher: “Can I sing in three months? Can you teach me?” The fact that it was this ridiculously hard part to sing didn’t really enter my head.
Sweeney Todd should turn out to be a very special movie for your latest addition, given that they probably know the songs just as well as you do…
Yeah, because I’m sure they’re going to recognise at least half of the songs here, and not know when or where they heard them.
It must make your job that little bit easier, given that you’re starring alongside your good friend, Johnny?
Yeah, he’s very conscientious and disciplined, and he’s probably a bit more obedient to Tim than I am. And he was very helpful, because I was pregnant halfway through, and therefore my focus wasn’t always the best. I had to give up caffeine, and that didn’t make it easy to jump to it. Johnny was very good at giving me signs offcamera when I was missing my cue.
Tim and Johnny are almost Fight Club close – is it like dealing with a second marriage for you?
They’re not like a married couple. They’re more like brothers, I’d say. They’ve got a lot of old jokes – poo jokes mainly, and American TV culture reference points. They’re pretty much on the same wavelength. And in this, Johnny’s hair was so much like Tim’s, they looked like twins at times.
Given the amount of razors on the set of this movie, was Tim ever tempted to go for a close shave, and the full back-and-sides?
Actually, sometimes he’ll come downstairs, and he’ll surprise you. It’s the comb, but he doesn’t really. Once I woke him up with a comb hanging over him, like a horror movie scene. He is clean though, I’ll give him that. He may look like he doesn’t care, but he does. He cleans his hair, conditions it and combs it, but then, within a day…
As a teenager, you were a big fan of musicals, and Sondheim’s in particular. At 13, you were so desperate to be Mrs Lovett you even had her hairdo…
Yeah, but the funny thing is, I didn’t quite realise I was doing it until one of my friends told me recently, “Well, we used to call you Mrs Lovett, don’t you remember?” I was a strange child…
Johnny looked at old movies like Mad Love and The Penalty to find Sweeney’s madness. How did you prepare to play a heartless wench like Mrs Lovett? Watch The Bride Of Frankenstein? The speeches of Margaret Thatcher?
Maybe I should have, but Tim wanted me to look at Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? – Bette Davis – and Bonnie & Clyde. Mainly those. And Mad Love, but I’d seen that already. We watch Mad Love at Christmas. Better than It’s A Wonderful Life.
Given that you’re sleeping with the director here, is it hard to keep your home life sane during the making of a movie this complex and intense?
We didn’t talk about the movie at home. That was banned. I listed rules to keep in place if we were going to work together. Rule number one was, don’t even go there at home; don’t talk about the job. Even if it’s a great idea, just keep it for the next day. And then it also became pretty obvious early on that I should watch my mouth on set too. Shut up, basically.
Are you able to judge one another’s work? Can you say to Tim, “Actually, honey, I think you went a bit too off the rails there”?
Eh, we don’t really watch our work, to be honest. I mean, I’m always gobsmacked when I see something that he’s made, because he’s very private, and doesn’t reveal much about what he’s doing. So, when you see the results, you’re going, “Oh, my God, you’ve been carrying that around in your head all this while”. So, it’s always a surprise, and I’m always amazed…
HBC video about Sweeney:
And another HBC interview from Time Out New York, Issue 639 : December 27, 2007 - January 2, 2008
As British icons go, Helena Bonham Carter’s up there with Tony Blair and clotted cream. Simply pronouncing her name is enough to make you feel refined and dignified. But the 41-year-old actor sure as hell doesn’t suffer from stiff-upper-lip syndrome: Talk with her for 30 minutes and chances are you’ll blush and crack up, then hope she’ll become your lifelong friend and/or lover.
Preparing for the role of Mrs. Lovett in the long-anticipated, megaviolent film version of Stephen Sondheim’s morbid musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Bonham Carter faced the biggest challenge of her career: training for two and a half months with famed vocal coach Ian Adam, who died one week after filming wrapped. Envious rivals will assume she got the part by sleeping with the film’s director, Tim Burton—the father of her son, Billy-Ray, and the man she shares adjacent homes with (they connect via hallway) in London. Bonham Carter is quick to emphasize she was chosen by Sondheim.
TONY (Time Out New York) talked to the actor on the phone from London, just days before she gave birth to her second child with Burton. By the time you read this, she’ll be up to her porcelain chin in soiled bibs and poopy diapers.
TONY: How do you feel? Are you nervous about the birth?
Helena: It’s all been a bit stressful with the movie coming up. My real worry is that I won’t be able to hold off until Tim gets back from the States. But other than that, no—not really. Truth be told, I’m rather looking forward to the epidural.
TONY: Not a fan of going au naturel?
Helena: Oh God, no. Besides, if someone offers you drugs, and it’s free and legal, and there’s a good reason for it, and it’s good quality? Why would you not get high?
TONY: Are you the breast-feeding type?
Helena: I think it’s wonderful. You know you’re providing a real service. After carrying around your boobs for so long, it’s nice to know they have an actual purpose.
TONY: Surely there’s a dark side, too.
Helena: Well, Billy was a bit of a succubus. It gets to a point where you feel awkward. If they can crawl up and reach for it, perhaps it’s time to move on.
TONY: What tricks did you learn while training for Sweeney Todd?
Helena: Smile when you want to hit a high note. When you want to go high, think low, and vice versa. I also got a flat tummy without once going to the gym.
TONY: Thanks to breathing exercises?
Helena: You’ve got to sing from your “front bottom,” as it were. Although Ian wouldn’t call it that, he’d just shout, “Sing from your cunt!” He was also fond of emphasizing exactly where that was, so he’d scream, “You’re not singing from your cunt!” Then he’d storm over and molest you.
TONY: So in polite company, I could say, “So-and-so is quite the front bottom”?
Helena: That’s what I do, but not Ian. He goes straight for the c-u-n-t.
TONY: That makes for a fitting segue into asking what Broadway snobs think of your performance.
Helena: People are going to think what they want. Both Johnny [Depp] and I kept singing high and enunciating sharply, but Tim discouraged that. He was like, “Don’t do that Broadway thing!”
TONY: How do you maintain an “office romance”?
Helena: I’m afraid I don’t have anything positive to say about that. Being involved with people you work with is not a very good idea. To make it work, Tim and I had to lay down some commandments, set some rules.
TONY: Such as?
Helena: For me, it was a matter of learning to shut my mouth, because my initial instinct is to talk and talk and go on about what I think. And he’s not very forthcoming with compliments, so I needed a bit of reassurance here and there. And no talking about [work] at home, of course.
TONY: I bet you’re fun to hang out with.
Helena: That’s very sweet. Unfortunately, I won’t be hanging out with you or anyone else for the next week or so. Something will be hanging out of me, that’s for sure.
TONY: The miracle of birth.
Helena: Yes—very wet, with lots of blood and gore and bodily fluids. Just like Sweeney Todd, really.
Director TIM BURTON was determined to help his wife HELENA BONHAM CARTER shake off her image as a period actress - by casting her in bizarre movie roles. Bonham Carter was once famed for her portrayal of characters in period dramas, but Burton, who has two children with the star, insists the 41-year-old's acting remit has now changed drastically. He says, "Yes, I do put Helena in some strange roles considering she's my partner and the mother of my children. I started off putting her in a monkey suit (in Planet Of The Apes). In Sweeney Todd, her character ends up thrown into an oven. And in The Corpse Bride, I had her as a decomposing corpse with maggots in her head. "That's a problem you're going to have if you're around me. 'Forget those period costumes in Florence or those Elizabethan wardrobes,' I told her, 'It's not going to be like that anymore."Johnny and HBC are DROP DEAD GORGEOUS!!! from http://observer.guardian.co.uk
Drop dead gorgeous
She made her name in Merchant-Ivory's exquisite corset dramas, but her Gothic beauty has since brought her a host of unexpected roles - not least in her partner Tim Burton's latest gore-fest, Sweeney Todd. Helena Bonham Carter talks to Barbara Ellen about slasher movies, motherhood and why you won't find a comb in their home
Sunday January 6, 2008
In truth, Bonham Carter's career has been more complex and interesting than that, and so, it transpires, is the woman. While Bonham Carter does have the posh vowels (she is the great grand-daughter of former prime minister Herbert Asquith), she is also disarmingly friendly and has an earthy (if not filthy) giggle, which she employs a lot. In short, otherworldly and ethereal Helena Bonham Carter is not.
Then there are her looks. For someone so long hailed as the definitive 'English rose', it turns out that Bonham Carter is a proud 'mongrel', boasting a Czech/Spanish/Austrian Jewish/French/Russian heritage. In person, as on screen, Bonham Carter is hauntingly beautiful, with a childlike face, brown-rimmed eyes and that great bush of wild electrocuted-looking hair that makes her look as if she's rushed straight from some Bronte-esque melodrama on the Yorkshire moors.
Then, of course, there is Bonham Carter's 'unique' dress sense. (The press love to snap her looking like a pile of Gothic laundry.) Though today, when we meet in a cafe near her north london home, she is disappointingly restrained in a black jumper and ruffled skirt. 'I don't think I dress eccentrically,' says Bonham Carter, placing my tape recorder on the arm of her chair so that her tiny, tumbling voice can register. 'I'm just not conservative, I guess - I dress according to what like. And I'm not a mannequin, as you can tell.'
At the time of our talk, Bonham Carter is also pregnant by her partner, leftfield Hollywood director Tim Burton, with whom she's worked on projects such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish and The Corpse Bride (since their relationship began, she has often been referred to as Burton's 'weirdo muse').
Bonham Carter and Burton already have a son, Billy, four, and, shortly after we meet, she gives birth to a baby girl. At our meeting she is still pregnant, and how - her bump is so big she can barely sit up properly and keeps threatening to slide off the chair.
'Yes,' laughs Bonham Carter, 'I am technically about to have a baby. I could technically go into labour right now.'
She tells me she was working so hard on Burton's latest project, a film version of Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, that she didn't think she could get pregnant. When she did, she wasn't popular with costume and continuity. 'If you look at the film and see my breast size, it goes up and down like a yo-yo. I have my usual tangerines and I walk around the corner and suddenly they're melons.' Sliding down in her chair again, Bonham Carter erupts into giggles.
We're here to discuss Bonham Carter's playing the pie-making Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, also starring Johnny Depp in the title role as the throat-slashing barber.
Recently nominated for a Golden Globe, Sweeney Todd is as gruesome, murky and twisted as they come (blood and guts oozing everywhere). Depp and Bonham Carter are impeccably sinister, and rather brilliant, dramatically and musically, right up to the climax, where, throats having been slit, they bleed to a grisly crimson death. 'It's not feel-good,' says Bonham Carter, by way of understatement.
Bonham Carter loved playing Mrs Lovett, and refers to herself as a 'musical whore'. 'I've always loved musicals,' she says. 'Tim thought I was making Billy gay because that's all I'd sing to him.' She even claims that singing for Sweeney Todd may have got her pregnant. 'It was all the oxygen. And my pelvic floor has never been so fit. I've got great hopes that after this baby it's going to bounce straight back.'
Bonham Carter adds that, contrary to what people might think, she does not get parts in Burton's movies simply because they are a couple. 'I really do have to be righter than right before Tim lets me do a part,' she says. 'Sexual favours don't get me anything.' In the case of Sweeney Todd, Sondheim had the final say over casting, and Bonham Carter auditioned for him. She describes getting the part as 'the most absolutely amazing thing. I just could not believe it. Nor could Tim, actually. He burst into tears. And I burst into tears.'
I ask Bonham Carter if being with on set with Burton is a bit like being the teacher's kid - always mindful of charges of favouritism, they criticise and ignore you more. She nods: 'It's inverted favouritism. Or maybe just sadism. Whatever the opposite of favouritism is.'
I point out that Burton uses Depp again and again, and nobody criticises that. 'Tim doesn't sleep with Johnny though,' drawls Bonham Carter, deadpan. 'I can vouch for that. He only sleeps with me.' Her lips twitch. 'But he and Johnny have a perfectly cordial relationship.'
The way Bonham Carter tells it, things occasionally got rocky between her and Burton on the Sweeney Todd set. 'There are certain stresses that come with working together,' says Bonham Carter. 'There's no pretence with us, you see. No "Let's adopt our formal selves".'
What sort of thing is she talking about? 'Well, he was all: (growls) "How difficult is it to come through the door and cover that spot!" And I'd be (whines): "I've got wool in my head because I'm fucking pregnant, and there's blood everywhere and I didn't see it, all right?" And all I get is: "Action!"'
During all this, says Bonham Carter, people working with them on set would either look down or away ('Johnny was forever polishing his razors'). She grins: 'One weekend, Tim and I came up with Indian nicknames for each other. I called him Big Chief Little Patience. His name for me was Little Squaw Running Mouth, ie I talk too much. Stay schtum!'
Sounds like being a muse, even a 'weirdo' one, isn't all it's cracked up to be?
'I don't know if you could call me a muse,' grins Bonham Carter. 'Most muses are silent.'
Bonham Carter was born in Golders Green, north London, in 1966. Although 'under-confident', she was a clever child ('a bit of a swot') and had a 'fertile imagination'. She would watch the television wondering if she could climb inside it. Other times she would play around and dress up, watching movies and pretending she was in them. 'I remember ...#8594;...#8592; when The French Lieutenant's Woman came out,' says Bonham Carter. 'I would pretend to be the French lieutenant's woman. I was always a romantic. I still am, actually.'
Bonham Carter says she had a 'very happy' childhood. However, her father Raymond had a stroke when she was 13, leaving him paralysed in a wheelchair. The young Helena decided then and there to 'reinvent herself', picking up the phone to get an acting agent.
Was this her way of escaping reality? 'It was an escape, I guess,' says Bonham Carter. She credits her parents with giving her the inner strength to deal with the situation positively. 'I was just determined to have self-sufficiency. It was just thinking: I don't need to be defeated by this - it's going to be OK.'
This fortitude is at odds with the fey, somewhat ethereal image people had of her in her youth. 'I was not that,' says Bonham Carter. 'I never was. I was a very tough 13-year-old. And so determined. I just thought: I can make a happy ending out of this.'
Her father died in 2004, but it was he who encouraged Bonham Carter to grasp her first big break. A photograph that had been taken of her for Tatler resulted in film offers (not least to play Lady Jane Grey), but it meant she would not be able to go to Cambridge. 'University would have been a kinder start,' says Bonham Carter. 'But I remember my dad saying: "You've got a break, and that's something you can't manufacture - you've got to go with it and see where it takes you."' She smiles ruefully: 'I suppose you can't go to university, then three years later say: "Can I have my break now, please?"'
Bonham Carter says she's had her moments of regretting this decision ('Mainly when my friends went off to their universities'), just as she had pangs about her lack of formal training, but now she is at peace with it all: 'You don't go on regretting the things you do, do you?' These early movies, such as A Room with a View, Maurice and Howards End were to cement Bonham Carter in the public imagination as a human Merchant Ivory corset, but all she could think about was that she couldn't bear to watch herself on screen.
'It's not false modesty,' insists Bonham Carter. 'I hated what I looked like. I did look, as somebody said, like a bloated chipmunk! I had a lot of criticism, and I've always been more aware of the criticism than the praise.'
Bonham Carter says she has always hated watching herself on screen ('It's torture!'), and has only ever liked herself in Planet of the Apes (where she wore an ape suit) and The Corpse Bride (which was animated). 'For me, acting is about getting away from myself. So to look at myself is the last thing I want.' Is she shy? 'Yes, I am,' she says, unexpectedly. 'And I love to criticise myself. Well, I don't love it, but you know what I mean.'
Bonham Carter was to go on to boast a more restless and adventurous CV than perhaps people realise - including turns in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, the mother of autistic sons in Magnificent 7, and the disreputable nihilistic chain-smoking Maria in Fight Club (which won her an indie audience).
In 1997, back in a corset for The Wings of the Dove, she found herself Oscar nominated. In the end, Helen Hunt won ('For two syllables I thought I was up there,' laughs Bonham Carter). Being nominated, she remembers, was 'Incredibly nice. A bit like being pregnant - everyone was so friendly. Taxi drivers were saying, "Go for it!" Suddenly I felt very patriotic.'
More recently, Bonham Carter has appeared in Conversations with Other Women. Directed by first-time director Hans Canosa, and co-starring Aaron Eckhart, it tells the story of old flames meeting up at a Manhattan wedding.
Bonham Carter also appeared in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as Bellatrix Lestrange. She loved it because she loves the books, but the special effects made for a tough, drawn-out shoot. 'You can get a bit bored,' she winces, looking around her as if JK Rowling might be listening. 'But it's such fun to be involved, to be part of that world. I love witches and magic and dress-up and make-believe.'
One wonders how she perceives her own career. Part of the Bonham Carter 'myth' is that, from the start, she was damned by those corset-friendly 'Edwardian' good looks; her beauty got her noticed, but also cruelly limited her potential.
Perhaps bored of answering this kind of question, Bonham Carter just shrugs. She's always maintained that she never set out to deliberately 'subvert' her early roles (she makes a good point about them being leads, and therefore great for women). She also feels that everyone tends to get defined by how they look in the acting profession, not just her. 'Even if you've got that interesting indie look or one of those faces that can transform, you end up getting defined by your look. You've just got to work with what you've got. And you know, it couldn't matter less what people think after a while. You soon come to realise there's really no point worrying about it.'
These days Bonham Carter lives with Burton in unworried, unwedded bliss in Hampstead. They first met when they were making Planet of the Apes in 2001. Is it true that the first thing Burton ever said to her was: 'I can really see you in an ape mask'? 'Yes,' says Bonham Carter. 'He said: "Don't be offended, but you're the first person I thought of."' She grins: 'Then he explained himself, which was much more intuitive. He said: "I just got the feeling you like to change what you look like." And I said: 'You're absolutely right."'
She did Planet of the Apes partly because of the ape suit ('I always like to do the thing you're never going to be able to do again'), partly because she wanted to work with Burton. 'I was excited to work with Tim Burton, even though the script was absolutely crap,' she says. 'But it wasn't a case of: "I want to work with him because I'm going to have two children with him, and he's going to be my husband!"'
Bonham Carter tells me that, long before she and Burton got together, one of the first conversations they ever had was about her home place, Hampstead. Burton had stayed there while filming Sleepy Hollow and told her it was the only place in the world he felt he belonged. Now he and Bonham Carter are living there together, and are perceived as an odd (as in eccentric) pair, The First Couple of Kook, but nevertheless kindred spirits, a good match.
'Well, yes, I think we are,' says Bonham Carter. 'I think it's to do with our hair - the lack of comb, the lack of hair care.'
One detail the public finds endlessly fascinating about the couple is the fact that, rather than live together conventionally, they reside in adjoining houses, rumoured to connect via a secret underground passageway (the more excitable reports have it illuminated only by candlesticks, with bats and owls swooping about). 'We haven't got a passageway - we've just got a room ...#8594; ...#8592; between the two,' corrects Bonham Carter. 'And to me it makes complete sense: if you've got some money, and you can afford it, why not have your own space?'
Why not indeed - it all sounds fine to me. I tell her that they're the London Woody and Mia (before it all went wrong, of course). 'Thank you,' says Bonham Carter. 'It really is a great idea. You never have to compromise emotionally or feel invaded.'
In their house, is it a case of Tim-Land and Helena-Land? Not really, says Bonham Carter. 'The whole thing has morphed into Billy-Land.' She says that she and Burton have different decors and different Sky Plus systems, but the main TV room is in one bit, and Billy is in another. 'I'm surprised when people find it weird, to be honest,' says Bonham Carter, looking perplexed. 'It's not even that separate, really - it just looks like a quite big, strange house. And there's a sense of choice about things - you see each other when you want to.'
One thing is evident, however much she adored playing Mrs Lovett: Bonham Carter is relishing her maternal role more. Rather touchingly, she has described motherhood as 'the ultimate creativity', and said she'd love to do it again and again. As she says to me: 'I'd really like six of them!'
Does Bonham Carter feel that having her children in her late thirties makes them all the more precious? 'Yes,' she says. 'Because you really want them by then, don't you? You've made the decision. You don't resent the time, or any loss of freedom. You're just so very happy to have them around.'
Her life is, Bonham Carter says, just before she hands me back my tape recorder, pretty much exactly as she always wanted it to be. Does she feel fortunate that things have fallen into place for her? 'Oh yes,' she says. 'I feel very lucky.' Before Burton, Bonham Carter had a few long-term relationships (most notably with Hamlet co-star Kenneth Branagh) but they broke down before marriage and children. Was she getting anxious that she wasn't going to become a mother? 'When I was 35, I definitely had that feeling of, Oh my God, I'm never going to meet someone.'
Now that she is a mother, what does Bonham Carter wish for her children? 'Obviously to give them a great sense of security. Tell them that whatever they do is wonderful!' Bonham Carter peals with laughter. 'Because it is, it is. You're so enchanted by them. Before you're a mother you'll never know how much in love you'll be.'
As we prepare to leave, I ask Bonham Carter if Burton was equally as excited to become a parent. 'Totally. He's very childlike anyway. He's never let go of his inner child. Or his outer child!' How about her? Bonham Carter shifts in her chair: 'It does make you grow up, doesn't it?' she says. 'But it makes you grow down, too. It brings back the child in you.'
In a way, it seems, it takes Bonham Carter back to her own childhood, and what first attracted her to acting: 'It's taken way too seriously - it's all just dress-up and make-believe.' Does she think there should always be an element of play in acting? 'Oh yes. That and transforming. You know - getting away as far away from yourself as possible.' But why would she need to get 'far away' from herself? 'Because,' smiles Bonham Carter, 'that's what makes me feel liberated.'
· Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is out on 25 January
Mrs. Lovett's All Natural Ingredients
As goes a favorite Christmas week tradition at our house, I was in charge of picking the movies we’d traipse off to the mall to see while everyone else was doing frantic last-minute shopping. “Sweeney Todd is first on the list,” I told my husband. Who could blame him for raising an eyebrow? Tim Burton’s adaptation of the bloodiest musical in the history of American theater is unquestionably an odd choice in a season synonymous with sugarplums, mistletoe and joyous conviviality.
The easy answer, of course, is that - despite being several decades older than the targeted demographic – I’ve become a full fledged Deppster. (Why else would I have a life-size cutout of Captain Jack Sparrow in my home office?) When I first heard that he’d been signed to play the villainous Demon Barber of Fleet Street, however, I had my doubts. Having enjoyed the privilege of seeing Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the Broadway version, it was a stretch to picture my favorite rum-soaked pirate maniacally slashing his way into a Dickensian urban legend. That and the fact that much was said about him not even being a singer.
A quirky musical of this ilk, though, places a higher premium on actors who can carry a passable tune as opposed to operatic personalities who don’t know the first thing about how to deliver lines of dialogue. When one adds to the mix the casting of Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman – neither of whom are known for their lyrical talents – some intriguing fare unfolds that turns out to be bloody entertaining.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of mayhem run amok in early 19th century London, the notion of a grief-stricken barber bent on revenge first appeared in a penny dreadful under the title The String of Pearls: A Romance. Its author, Thomas Peckett Prest, had a fondness for spinning snippets of various gruesome crimes reported in the newspaper and padding the plots out with macabre details of his own. While historians dismiss the existence of a real life persona named Sweeney Todd, there’s no question but that the urban squalor, corruption, poverty and vocational bleakness of the era prompted many a desperate soul to take matters into his or her own hands. Couple this with the perceived expendability of the human soul and you have a table that is well set for the likes of the barber and his enterprising landlady to slice and dice their way to fortune and popularity.
When the movie opens, Benjamin Barker (soon to be known as Sweeney Todd) is returning to the city of his ruination with only one goal on his mind – to kill the judge who sent him to prison on a phony charge, raped his wife, and abducted his baby girl, Johanna. Fifteen years as a convict in Australia has not imbued Barker with a congenial attitude toward his fellow man. Yet even his glowering demeanor is not enough to scare off his fellow shipmate and rescuer, Anthony Hope. As his last name implies, Anthony is optimistic that they can become fast friends. In a perfect world, Anthony would even welcome him as a father-in-law, for the first young woman he manages to lay eyes on as he wanders the city is none other than Sweeney’s daughter, the evil Judge Turpin’s hostage ward.
Romance might also be in the cards for Sweeney, though he is loathe to play the hand that his slatternly but wistfully sincere landlady, Mrs. Lovett, is eager to offer him. Here’s a woman who probably coveted her upstairs neighbor even when he was happily married. That he’s now a brooding widower looking for a place to hang out a shingle is a tasty invitation she can’t refuse. Patience is on her side, she rationalizes, artfully omitting the one pesky little detail that would change the entire equation; specifically, Mrs. Barker didn’t exactly die when she drank poison.
Moviegoers who might shy away from a flick that’s all about slitting throats of unwitting victims can take heart in the almost cartoonish nature of the blood spurts. The here-we-go-again nature of death-by-razor holds few surprises after the first one (Sacha Baron Cohen as Todd’s evil rival) and the humorous underscore of some of the songs tempers the much-touted gore level. Cinematically, it’s quintessential Burton genius that the only splashes of bright color against an otherwise black and grey backdrop are (10 whenever Sweeney dispatches another victim and (2) when we’re witnessing Sweeney’s happier past or Mrs. Lovett’s loopy expectations of a copasetic future by the sea with her dispassionate partner in crime.
The script faithfully follows the stage version to the letter, and the songs themselves are well executed by Depp and Bonham Carter. Depp’s dark eyes speak volumes of Sweeney’s tortured psyche and violent fervor to exact justice in an unjust world. This is a character who doesn’t live his life in half-steps and the feline agility with which Depp moves from one scene to the next conveys the dangerous energy and lethal power that lies coiled just beneath the surface. An unabashed whimsicality ensues when he and Bonham Carter observe the outside world’s pedestrian foot traffic as clueless sandwich boards for potential entrees.
Bonham Carter – quite a departure from the matronly Mrs. Lovett portrayed by Lansbury – is both seductive and sleazy at the same time. She is, by every definition, a survivor in bitterly hard times. Her disenchantment about being the owner of the worst meat pie shop in London, however, hasn’t jaded her into thinking that life and true love have passed her by. One can’t help but believe that a good scrubbing and a better wardrobe would make her turn heads on any English street. What’s most intriguing about her, however, is that her innate confidence belies her exterior trappings and is what compels her to easily envision a marriage to Sweeney and motherhood to her adoring young apprentice, Tobias. When her shop suddenly becomes the equivalent of a trendy bistro (owing to its new secret ingredients), she and Sweeney are elevated to anti-heroes, cultish protagonists who almost seem good in comparison to Sweeney’s arch enemy, Turpin, and his slimy henchman, Beadle Bamford.
As villains go, it’s hard to beat the likes of Rickman. Even when he goes into “high thug” mode, he delivers his threats with such wonderful diction and smarmy charisma that one can’t help but smile. When questioned whether he believes a young felon is deserving of death by hanging, Turpin shrugs it off with the comment that the lad is obviously guilty of something. When his pretty ward rejects him and announces that she’s going to run off with the besotted Anthony, his reaction is to pack her off to the nearest asylum until she learns to appreciate him. To cross a man of Turpin’s character is not advised. Nor is it advised to seek a shave from a certain barber with a vendetta.
At the end of the day, how thin is the line between Turpin’s casual indifference to the law and Sweeney’s resolve to make all men pay for the heinous crime of one of them? The film advances the supposition that a bit of Sweeney and Turpin exists in us all; it is the external factors and temptations that determine whether we will ultimately find redemption in the end. In the final frames, a remorseful and anguished Sweeney offers his own neck up to justice but, in doing so, provides the devil with yet another soul.
It’s a juicy film that clicks on all levels and one that is not soon forgotten.