Thursday 7 February 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007)

Thursday 7 February 2008
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John Logan (based on the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim)

Cast: Johnny Depp (Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), Sacha Baron Cohen (Danial Higgins/Signor Adolfo Pirelli), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy Barker), Jayne Wisener (Johanna Barker), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope) & Ed Sanders (Tobia "Toby" Ragg)

A barber returns to London after being imprisoned by a jealous Judge who stole his family, and plots his revenge with a cutthroat razor...

It's a musical; with lots of singing, but no dancing. I wish the advertising had made that clear, as you could feel the confusion sweep across the audience when Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) and Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) immediately sing a little ditty as their ship returns to inky-black London town...

By the time pie-maker Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) launches into "The Worst Pies In London" just a few minutes later, anyone uneasy with musicals will be considering getting a refund. But, speaking as someone not enamoured with the musical art form, I suggest you persevere. The volume of songs gradually spreads thinner, and they become more palatable and enjoyable.

It helps that the songs, adapted from the 1978 stage musical by Stephen Sondheim, are tightly woven into the story – effectively taking the shape of sung dialogue. There are no acrobatic orphans, choreographed gents, or toothless crones breaking into dance anywhere. In fact, the only moment that edges into the realm of a "dance sequence" is in a quick daydream by Todd.

The story is a perfect match for director Tim Burton's unique brand of gothic horror. A film adaptation of a stage musical, Sweeney Todd is based on the real legend of a barbarous barber who cut the throats of his customers, and dropped their bodies down a trapdoor beneath the chair, so his accomplice could use their meat as pie filling.

Sondheim's musical attached a loose revenge plot for Benjamin Barker, a pleasant Fleet Street barber who's deported to Australia for a crime he didn’t commit by corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who took a fancy to Barker's wife and child. Returning to London after 15 years labour in Australia, kindly Barker has transformed himself into the skunk-haired Sweeney Todd – and swears vengeance on the Judge who ruined his idyllic life.

It's a sumptuous experience, despite taking place in very few London streets, with Sweeney himself rarely going outside of his barbershop. Burton's got an incredible gift for bringing smoggy, dark, cloudy Victorian London to vivid life, yet in a slightly exaggerated manner.

Johnny Depp, marking his sixth collaboration with Burton, plays another character with unruly black hair and pallid features, as Todd. He alternates between sombre depression and manic deviousness. Sad, tragic, kooky and dangerous, it's a well-textured performance... and he can certainly sing well enough to carry a tune.

Helena Bonham Carter, an actress perfectly suited to playing pretty-yet-grotty working class cockney, is also impressive. As Mrs Lovett, she's the ideal rotten partnership for Depp, both actors providing the cold-hearts of the film, and keeping it firmly on-track. They're one of the best villainous on-screen partnerships I've seen in years.

It's because of Depp and Carter that Sweeney Todd works as well as it does, as the storyline (often a checklist of to-do's) doesn't really begin to surprise until the last half hour. The songs are also very similar in tone/style, and only a few really provide much of an emotional punch. The best songs are "My Friends" (Todd's love song to his razors) and "A Little Priest" (Todd and Lovett concoct their pie-making idea), while most of the others range from short-and-unmemorable to unnecessary-and-boring.

But again, I'm speaking as someone who isn't a big fan of musicals... and I haven't seen the original stage play. If you love the format, and/or know all the words to Sondheim's lyrics, chances are you'll lap Sweeney Todd up. It certainly appears to be a brilliant adaptation, and it's increasingly easier to accept (and eventually quite enjoy) the songs that spark up every few minutes.

Sweeney Todd's supporting cast are good value, too. Alan Rickman essentially reprises Professor Snape from Harry Potter as Judge Turpin, but that's no bad thing. Timothy Spall is on henchman duties as Beadle Bamford, suitably ratty and slimy. Sacha Baron Cohen is surprisingly good as rival barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli, really staking a claim as "the new Peter Sellers" just now.

Jamie Campbell Bower, playing Todd's young friend/shipmate, has a subplot where he falls in love with Todd's grown-up daughter Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), and acquits himself well. Likewise Ed Sanders, as street urchin Toby -- who earns some of the film's sparse laughs and has a key role towards the end.

Overall, Burton's film certainly doesn’t skimp on the bloodshed (with throats slashed in full view, and often), and there isn't anything to complain about in terms of production and acting. Total satisfaction depends on your tolerance for musicals, although Sweeney Todd still entertains – thanks to its sprightly pace, keen atmospherics, engaging characters, and suitably bloody kills.

Budget: $50 million
116 minutes

PICTURE: 1.85:1 | SOUND: DTS / Dolby Digital / SDDS |