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Sweeney Todd

USA 2007
Directed by
Tim Burton
158 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Synopsis: Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) has been unjustly imprisoned for 15 years, his wife and child stolen away from him by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) on bogus charges. Upon his release he reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd and ably assisted by Mrs Lovitt (Helena Bonham Carter) embarks upon a gruesome "recycling" enterprise. He slits the throats of his customers then drops the bodies through a chute for Mrs Lovitt to bakes their meat into pies which she sells in her shop.

Sweeney Todd the Barber, by God he were better than the play,
Sweeney Todd the Barber, "I'll polish 'em off" he used to say.
For many a poor orphan lad
The first square meal he ever had
Was a hot meat pie made out of his dad
From Sweeney Todd the Barber

It's irresistible to quote this verse from the old London folk ballad about The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It also lets you know what you're in for with this latest, macabre version of the ever-popular story (believed by some to be based on fact, but unlikely!) which first turned up in a British journal in 1846. After countless adaptations for film and television, in 1979 acclaimed American composer ,Stephen Sondheim, turned the tale into a Broadway musical and it is this which is recreated in ever-so-Burtonesque style in this ghoulish film.

I've got to say that the film will not be to everyone's taste, but this Sweeney Todd is about as stylized and grim as you could get for the tale, short of making a true-blue horror film! Burton uses a desaturated palate of greys and blues, to emphasize the gloom of London and the man himself, with the sets remaining very confined to the upstairs barber shop and the downstairs hell of a bakery! Occasionally, when we cut (so to speak) to Todd's sad daughter, Joanna (Jane Wisener), now a ward of the evil Turpin and moping at her window, the color lightens. Similarly at those times the music becomes more lyrical, particularly when Joanna's young suitor, Anthony, sings "I'll steal you Joanna".

Much relies on the excellent partnership between Depp and Burton This is their sixth collaboration and in many ways their Todd is like a version of Edward Scissorhands gone over to the dark side. Depp reveals that he has a terrific singing voice (surprise!!), and certainly gets as far away from his "pretty boy" image as possible. There is anexcellent small role of the imposter barber Pirelli, played by the chameleon Sacha Baron Cohen (best known for his Ali G and Borat characters). The ubiquitous Timothy Spall also puts in a good comic turn as the repulsive beadle and Turpin's sidekick. Alan Rickman is always suitably villainous, if a bit stereotyped, in such roles.

Sondheim's songs are witty and sharp, but as music it's not to my taste. The endless throat-slashing and geysers of blood become almost repulsive in parts, and the opening credits with disgusting meat oozing out of a giant mincer are enough to put one off one's meat pie! I recently saw Ray Winstone in a more straight character-driven BBC version of this story, and preferred his more "sympathetic" Sweeney along with that film's (slightly) less gruesome emphasis. But overall this one works because of Burton's stylish and smart combining of elements - a story of a man driven mad by revenge, coupled with a cannibalistic serial killer plot - and all acted and sung brilliantly.




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