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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton makes a neat job of Stephen Sondheim’s horror musical

Published on January 29th 2008.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

As Tim Burton made clear on the South Bank Show recently, it is those ideas which combine darkness and emotion which resonate with him. In recent years, that has meant horror-tinged musicals; the sinister reworking of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005 and the release of musical animation Corpse Bride in the same year.

So, an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd, is a logical enough step and certainly contains enough darkness and emotion to satisfy the distinctive director.

Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) was formerly known as Benjamin Barker, a mild-enough family man until he was falsely arrested and sent to prison by a corrupt Judge who coveted his wife. As the film opens, Todd is returning to London by ship, a man changed by his experiences, ready to greet his home town of London - a place of poverty and injustice and dark goings on - and to find out what happened to his wife and daughter.

Once back, he resurrects his barbers chair with the blessing of his former landlady, Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who runs a grimy pie shop below. And if Todd is eager to ‘service’ London’s men-folk with his blades, Mrs Lovell is only too happy to add a new special to the menu when the back-log of customers gets a bit much.

Visually, Tim Burton is on safe ground here: the washed out colours of London, reminiscent of the living world in Corpse Bride, fittingly reflect the despair and nastiness which abounds in this particular version of Victorian London and this soot-blackened backdrop is a perfect foil for all that blood. As for the singing, although it is a little awkward initially to watch Johnny Depp crooning to his razors, the inescapable cheesiness of hearing someone sing their thoughts is quickly balanced by the film’s knowing humour and unremitting, unflinching violence.

The awkwardness is also helped by the characters, who manage to be menacing and sympathetic whilst maintaining a slightly cartoon-ey edge. Having done an unappealing Michael Jackson-esque turn as Willy Wonka in Charlie, Depp is on form (if a little Bowie-esque) as the ruined barber with an almost vampiric lust for throat-slitting. Helena Bonham Carter is at her best when squeezed into a filthy corset and is, thus, reassuringly fabulous as the doting Mrs Lovell. Alan Rickman, as Judge Turpin, is grey, flaky and satisfyingly repulsive and his odious lap-dog. Beadle Bamford, is played by Timothy Spall who, let’s be fair, has the perfect face for a mucky Victorian adaptation. There’s also a great turn by Sacha Baron Cohen as rival barber Signor Adolpho Pirelli.

As the violence grinds on with the sort of grisly elegance only Burton could manage, one thing which might disappoint musical fans in Sweeney Todd is the songs, which are funny, evocative and entirely forgettable. In fact, this is more opera than musical, filled with refrains and repetitions and characters mirroring each others words, all of which is backed by surges of emotive brass to signpost moments of intensity. There are no camp, catchy numbers here.

The themes are operatic too: love, covetousness, vengeance, humanity. Once you start to view Burton’s Sweeney Todd in this light, the film makes sense: This is a Greek tragedy reset in Victorian times, a macabre and unashamedly emotional story which mixes high ideas and low, bloody acts to create a film which is gruesome, disturbing and bloodily brilliant.

8/10
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (18) is on general release now

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