movie film review | chris tookey

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
7.53 /10
Sweeney Todd: Johnny Depp , Mrs. Lovett: Helena Bonham Carter
Full Cast >

Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John Logan, based on the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, adapted from the play by Christopher Bond

Released: 2007
Origin: US
Length: 117

Itís a bleediní masterpiece. I Lovett.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Four people with a touch of genius worked on this: composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, director Tim Burton, actor Johnny Depp (pictured) and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. So it should be no surprise that they have come up with one of the few great musical films of recent years.

It deserved many more Oscar nominations than the three that it has received (for Depp, costumes and art direction) and is in many ways superior to Chicago, which won Best Picture a few years ago. This is a gripping tale, splendidly set to music. Some may object that it should have been sung more operatically, but I adored every exhilarating minute of it.

Bizarrely, some American reviewers have objected that itís gory, stylised and a musical. This strikes me as like accusing Shakespeareís King Lear of being visceral, mostly in verse and a tragedy. What on earth did they expect?

Sweeney Todd tells the melodramatic story, inspired by real events, of a nineteenth-century barber, crazed by being transported overseas for a crime he did not commit, who returned after 15 years to be told that his wife was dead, and his daughter had fallen into the hands of the judge who had sentenced him.

Sweeney avenged himself on society by killing his customers and passing them on to his mistress, Mrs Lovett, who baked them into meat pies, which apparently went down well with beer, if not the judiciary.

Director Tim Burton is at home with such gothic material, and visually the film is as much of a treat as his other best-looking films, such as Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow. He is a magnificent, visionary director, now at the peak of his powers.

Although much of the movie is dark and menacing, set in a London brimming with corruption and injustice, itís also extremely funny Ė nowhere more so than when it launches into Mrs Lovettís colourful fantasy sequence, imagining herself and a bathing-costumed, improbably domesticated Sweeney settling down happily beside the seaside.

First staged in 1979, this is one of the finest musicals ever written, with some of Sondheimís wittiest lyrics and most powerful music. Itís brilliantly orchestrated on a magnificent scale, and most of the theatrical score is mercifully intact, although the opening number (The Ballad of Sweeney Todd) has been cut, depriving us of the joy of hearing Christopher Lee sing it, in his eerie, sepulchral bass. I gather it has been recorded, and I would like it to have been played over the end credits Ė perhaps weíll be able to enjoy it on the DVD.

Sondheim is often accused of writing unmemorable tunes. All I would reply is: listen to Not While Iím Around and Johanna, two of his most melodic ballads.

As usual with Sondheim, there is a certain amount of camp cynicism along with the wit; but thereís also a strength and passion, both musically and lyrically, which elevate this to being a major work of art.

And itís thoroughly dramatic. I defy anyone to experience Depp serenading his long-lost razors, holding one out and announcing ďAt last my arm is complete again!Ē without feeling a shiver down their spine.

Depp has given many great performances, but never has he been this smoulderingly volcanic. And he reveals an unexpectedly strong and flexible singing voice Ė not operatic, but with feeling and resonance. Itís like David Bowie in his maturity, which is all right by me. And Deppís diction, so often a weakness in American screen actors, is terrific. Iíve never heard so many of Sondheimís words before.

Helena Bonham Carterís soprano voice is more fragile, and lacks the earthiness that the score demands. But, with her big, black, marmoset eyes, she brings a sexiness and pathos to Mrs Lovett that I havenít seen in any of the four stage productions I have witnessed.

The supporting cast is superb. Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall are marvellously repellent as the lecherous Judge and porcine Beadle. Sacha Baron Cohen sings and cavorts surprisingly well as Pirelli, the rival, quasi-Italian barber. As the young, gin-sodden orphan Toby, Ed Sanders is tremendous, and sings the beautiful (though savagely ironic) Not While Iím Around extremely affectingly. Even the potentially wet lovers Johanna and Anthony are engagingly played by newcomers Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell.

Be warned that the film includes some extremely grisly throat-cuttings. But despite the necessarily gruesome subject-matter, the breathtaking talent on display here should be enough to send anyone home euphoric.

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