A Very Bloody Christmas

Ben Raymond

Nothing says Christmas like homicide. Add some sweet revenge and a bit of cannibalism and you have yourself a recipe for some titillating yuletide bloodshed.

In their sixth collaboration, Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Sleepy Hollow”) bring to the screen one of the year’s most anticipated films, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s infamous stageplay and musical, “Sweeney Todd” tells the tale of an unassuming barber and family man Benjamin Barker (Depp) who is wrongly accused of murder and locked in prison. Fifteen years and a few too many cooperative showers later, he returns to the seedy underbelly of London as Sweeney Todd to seek his revenge, one throat-slitting at a time.

The ensemble performance is spectacular. Helena Bonham Carter (“Big Fish”) as Todd’s devious cohort Mrs. Lovett delivers one of the best performances of her already laudable career.

Tragic when called for and maniacally funny throughout, Carter’s conniving melancholy is a joy to watch and impossible to forget. Timothy Spall and fellow “Harry Potter” alum Alan Rickman as the fastidious, borderline pedophiliac Judge Turpin are also to be commended for their fine performances.

Did he just say “fastidious, borderline pedophiliac?”

“Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen adds his comedic flair as Todd’s rival, Signor Adolfo Pirelli. And he is absolutely uproarious. When Cohen quite literally burst onto the screen minutes in, the packed house of 400 critics and fans immediately began to cheer. His greasy, sniggering performance was a high point and then some.

Depp is at the peak of his talents. Cinema’s most versatile actor dives headlong into a role tailor-made for his unorthodox abilities. He’s funny, ferocious and boy can he sing! I’d venture to say this is Depp’s best performance since “Ed Wood.” And it is his best chance yet to land an Oscar.

Burton rightly moderates his typical über-eccentric direction style in favor of a more reserved tact. And his restraint makes all the difference.

Surely the playfully macabre Burton atmosphere remains. The camera flies in, out and among sooty rooftops and cobblestone streets, tracking between pickpockets, swindlers and worse like a rickety carriage through a cheap amusement park haunted house.

In the place of his trademark wacky, chaotic direction, Burton treats the film with patience and a keen sense of calamity.

To make the film more silly than sad would be a catastrophic failure. Burton adheres to the tragic essence of “Sweeney Todd,” flooding the film with dread and sorrow instead of his usual quirk.

Aesthetically, “Sweeney Todd” is impressive. Cinematography from longtime Burton partner Dariusz Wolski saturates the screen with a browned and opaque half-lit rot that seems to become denser with each frame. Costumes by Oscar-winning designer Colleen Atwood are lurid and flamboyant, strategically exaggerating the naughtiest bits of the actors’ far-from-chiseled anatomies.

Todd’s razor slices through his victims’ necks with precision and gusto. It snaps tendons and peels the Adam’s apple, opening throats like an old can of peaches. Flaps of skin hang over the gaping wounds like segments of cheap, frayed carpeting. Heads are unhinged and opened like a rusty bear trap releasing a torrent of warm, viscous claret.

Nothing is hidden. Each gash is seen in its sanguine entirety, unimpeded by a well-placed palm or collar. Burton makes you feel it.

Burton is downright cruel, teasing the audience before each throttling. Depp waves the blade around like a composer conducting a symphony, drops it precariously at the tonsils, twisting his wrist into the handle with raging anticipation … but does nothing. He releases, and then begins once more.

The edge dances through the air in ballet, reflecting the midwinter moonlight off its face, then again cascades downward toward the neck, takes a careful scrape beneath the chin, uprooting prickly patches of stubble.

It does so again … and then again. Suddenly the tension breaks, and the razor plunges deep and cuts long.

Burton toys with the audience like a cat who stuns and torments a mouse. He doesn’t go right in for the kill. He plays with us, pulls our strings and torques the suspense to the threshold.

Many have and will complain that the film is too violent even for an R rating.

So, I offer a warning: To those of you anal-retentive, self-described moralists out there who are offended by this kind of playful violence – save your breath. It’s not meant to be taken seriously and neither are you.

All told, “Sweeney Todd” is a great time at the movies. It’ll be the darling of every cutthroat moviegoer in creation and make a killing at the box office this Christmas.

“Sweeney Todd” is not without its flaws. Unfortunately, my qualms with the film are all pivotal to the plot.

So, as much as it pains me not regurgitating my obnoxious and unqualified critiques of people who matter, I will nevertheless abstain.

Suffice it to say my high expectations were met, but not exceeded, and I think the film will rest nicely just inside my top 10 for 2007.

Take a seat and let Mr. Todd give you the closest shave you’ll ever have (you too, ladies) when “Sweeney Todd” hits theaters Christmas Day.