Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Review
    “I can guarantee you the closest shave you'll ever have.”

    Tim Burton was so enamoured by the Stephen Sondheim musical of Sweeney Todd when he saw it as student in London's West End way back during its first year that it possibly helped shape the direction that his filmmaking career would take. Over the years he has crossed paths with the potential for adapting it for the big screen several times, but only when his attempt to get “Ripley's Believe It Or Not” off the ground foundered, did the opportunity return and the project was greenlit. Eschewing his original idea to shoot it against green-screens a la “300”or “Sin City”, the eccentric director kept to a surprisingly small budget of $50 million and, in Dante Ferretti, the acclaimed production designer behind “Gangs Of New York”, fashioned a fabulously gothic Victorian London milieu that, like his depiction of Batman's Gotham City before it, is remarkably stylised and so removed from reality that it becomes a frighteningly grotesque and deliciously dark theatrical wonderland. But two vital components were to be the obstacles over which the film would either soar or stumble - blood and song.

    Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is a musical. There is no escaping that. And it is about a vengeful man wielding a cut-throat razor upon his hapless victims. And if you happen to be one of the customers sitting in his barber's chair ... there's no escaping that, either.

    Whilst Burton has brought song to his animated films The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, and even Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was no slouch in the tonsil-waggling department, Sweeney Todd is a full-throated, rip-roaring goth-rock-opera of an experience that even does away with a lot of what would have been spoken dialogue in favour of virtually singing the entire story for us. Of course, chopping down a three-hour stage production to a movie that clocks-in at less than two meant that some judicious re-jigging and pruning had to be done. So, what Burton, Sondheim and screenwriter John (Gladiator) Logan decided to do was remove the standard stage musical modus operandi of having the songs as interludes punctuating the plot and just have his non-professional singing cast croon their way through the whole thing. And, surprisingly enough, it works really well. Spectacularly well, in fact.

    The famous old tale revolves around the doomed practice of Fleet Street barber Sweeney Todd (a deliriously dark and deranged Johnny Depp) out to gain revenge on Judge Turpin (a snivelling and venomous Alan Rickman) for sending him to Australia as a convict on a trumped-up charge. But, Todd, once back in the almost monochromatic, grim but fascinating London and now homicidally-inclined, cuts his way through a swathe of would-be blackmailers, rivals and the innocent-but-unshaven, and, working in cahoots with Mrs. Lovett (a simply fabulous Helena Bonham Carter) who serves up the pile of dead bodies inside her ever-popular pies, engages a war of attrition with fellow barber Aldofo Piretti (a prancing and immensely conniving Sacha Baron Cohen). The translation from stage to studio set certainly looks impressive, with the cast inhabiting an eerie, shadow-and-grime environment that is typically Burton-esque - phenomenally cold and imposing yet incredibly interesting and entrancing just the same. The tale has not been simplified so much as it has been sharpened like one of Todd's razors - songs have been jettisoned and the odd new one added to help keep the plot moving forward and directed more intimately upon the main characters (no need for chorus crowds here). The story feels hard and raw, as well as over-the-top and flamboyant, which is a very tricky tightrope to walk.

    I'm no more a fan of musicals than I am of colonic irrigation (never actually endured the procedure, of course, but it is one of those lines you have to use, isn't it?) but I will also have to state that I totally fell in love with Baz Lurhman's Moulin Rouge - as many fellow musical-haters did, too. There is no explanation - the marriage of the visuals and the music just captivated me from start to finish. And Sweeney Todd, although vastly opposite in tone, pulls exactly the same trick only much more so, I feel. I can't deny the sheer cathartic heave-ho of Depp's vigorous zeal - each throat slashed a Grand-Guignol celebration of death and madness, every heartfelt song a lament of insane dimensions and a ferocious challenge to his self-imposed quest all at once. His greeting to his “Friends” - the set of demonically glinting cutthroat razors - is, at once, terrifying and awe-inspiring. Sweeney Todd may be a serial killer, but he is also someone that we sympathise with. Likewise, we pity Mrs. Lovett for what, for much of the time, feels like her unrequited love for the blood-loving barber upstairs. The pair are lunatics and no mistake, but they are not without considerable wit and charm ... and whenever Depp or Bonham Carter are onscreen they simply command it. Individually they are striking and beguiling, but together they raise the roof like gothic rock-gods returned from the grave for one last Halloween Ball.

    The actual songs, themselves, don't take centre-stage. By that I mean that the film doesn't (ahem) make a right song and dance about them, if you know what I mean. You never get the impression that when a number commences you are leaving the story for a few minutes of incidental wailing because the songs tell the story and deliver the verbal exchanges between characters, actually lifting the sombre plot with canny, twisting lyrics that spiral with dark thoughts and motivations. The cue that describes the human ingredients of the pies is a belter, and when Todd finally realises his destiny in a song called “Epiphany”, there is a surging wave of emotion that truly takes you deep within his haunted soul just as emphatically and crucially as if Hannibal Lector had just delivered a Quid Pro-quo. Whether the plot is sung to you or danced across the screen on the end of puppet-strings doesn't actually matter. The film tells its tale and weaves its spell just as intrinsically, intimately and intuitively as any other engrossing, arterial-spraying saga with or without benefit of lunatic lyrics. It is the sheer exhilaration of the performances that entrances and hauls you into the drama. Depp is beyond reproach. For years he has been the celebrated bon-vivant toiling away ecstatically on the fringes of mainstream and fashioning a catalogue of characters and a personal idiom that it so eclectic and off-kilter that the man seems to have been conjured up of the cauldron of a witch high on her own brimstone. As far as I am concerned, Johnny Depp can do no wrong - even my original misgivings and doubts about POTC: Dead Man's Chest have been allayed and soothed-away with repeated viewings - and it now seems utterly pointless to expect anything less than perfection from each new portrayal he delivers. His Sweeney Todd is dark, deranged and unashamedly twisted, yet Depp is able to inject an equal amount of pathos and sympathy to his irresistibly wicked zeal. With that rich cockney accent that he sported in “From Hell”, laced with the world-weariness-cum-optimism of Jack Sparrow (without the slurring, this time), he fine-tunes a voice that is shiveringly good and completely compelling. Singing with a sort of David Bowie style of inflection and irony (yes, the Bowie-quote has been mentioned a lot, but Depp does sound an awful lot like him). But the role is about much more than singing, and Depp nails his character with deeply sorrowful-yet-malignant eyes and expressions that continually hint of the wretched torture that Todd is undergoing.

    I would seriously hesitate to call this Burton's best, although I believe a second viewing (which can't come soon enough) may well prove this to be the case. All of his films have much to admire (well, all except the risible Planet Of The Apes, that is), it is still easy to pick fault within the idiosyncratic texture of his deliberately whimsical fables. And Sweeney Todd, for all of its gorgeous gothic atmosphere and sturm and drang musical aggression, falls short of perfection in some ways, too. Todd's background, air-brushed in brightly-lit flashbacks in contrast to the squalor an decay of the world to which has returned are slightly too whimsical and obvious, Turpin and his henchman (played with swarthy roguishness by Timothy Spall, who seems to be influenced by Bela Lugosi's Ygor) lurking just at the threshold of Todd's fairytale reminiscence. The romance between Joanna and Anthony (Todd's now older daughter and his seafaring buddy, respectively), which can't help but be slightly sidelined when in conflict with Todd's maniacal obsession with getting his hands on Turpin who holds his daughter as his reluctant ward, still feels like a distraction from the main course, however good Laura Michelle Kelly and Jamie Campbell Bower are in the roles. And perhaps a little more of Sacha Baron Cohen's comically sly, two-faced operatic fop would have helped balance out the importance of his threat. However, I can't help but adore what Burton and Depp have accomplished here. The film is a glorious throwback to the gothic old horror movies that I have always loved (as regular readers will no doubt know), clinging so devotedly to the trappings of Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Snr that lovers of intensely brooding psycho-drama amid the archly impressionistic shadows of yore should be in nightmarish nirvana throughout. Beyond question, Johnny Depp takes his cue from these archetypal stalwarts of vintage terror. The film borrows liberally from the cold look and feel of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, but infuses the garish blood and thematic opulence of Hammer during the copious bloodletting and some extremely ripe interludes, such as the glorious montage of Todd and Lovett picnicking on the heath, fantasising about marriage and parading down a supremely surreal and fantastically colourful Brighton Pier. That the majority of the film is sung to us becomes of utterly no consequence at all, before the first couple of minutes are up, you are bound-over and smitten by the eloquence and sheer dynamism of the story and the songs become a necessary means of propulsion to whisk us through the wretched depravities that Burton serves up with relish. Personally, I still have a tremendous fondness for Sleepy Hollow, yet Ichabod's continual fainting and the pure Scooby-Doo finale leave me cold and irritable every time. Here, Depp fits into the darkness and desperation of Todd much less awkwardly, essaying such a profound sense of wrath and single-minded rage that he becomes a monster of almost heroic proportions. But it is Bonham Carter's portrayal of the oft-ignored Mrs. Lovett that gives the film its corrupted heart and soul, so affecting is her performance. The duet entitled “Not While I'm Around” between herself and Ed Sanders' Toby Ragg, the wig-wearing, whiskey-swilling street urchin the murderous pair have inherited from Pirelli, towards the powerful and heartrending climax is achingly beautiful and so tinged with remorse, guilt and sadness that it is difficult to recall a more moving scene in what is, ostensibly, a thoroughly macabre horror movie.

    Rated 18 for its sky-high gore level, Sweeney Todd is an eye-poppingly violent film, folks. The claret spurts by the bucketful and in one deliriously delinquent montage, Todd dispatches several patrons one after the other with sadistically casual aplomb, his newfound art becoming just another dextrous skill in his already extensive repertoire. Still, I will admit to being somewhat surprised at the high rating. There is no sexual violence in the film, although it may be vaguely implied once and the multiple slayings have a gleefully bleeding tongue wedged firmly in a sliced cheek, so it is difficult to imagine anyone actually being disturbed or offended by them. But, I can testify to it being nicely refreshing to sit at the flicks to see a film that you know hasn't been sanitised by the censors or the studios.

    I may not have seen Sondheim's stage version - and it is worth mentioning that he has happily admitted to loving Burton's adaptation - but I was spellbound by this visceral take on the roguish folk-story. The songs work wonderfully and the tale is a grisly delight. One of cinema's reigning double-acts effortlessly do it again ... and with suitably wild Gothic charm. No-one, but no-one carries off the frilly shirts and such fantastically extravagant bouffants as Johnny Depp. No, not even Adam Ant, who will now surely be contemplating a comeback video along these slicing-dicing lines.

    More details can be found in the Picture and Sound sections.



    Filmed gorgeously in a visually deep 1.85:1, Burton's movie is actually not as starkly black and white as the publicity stills and excerpts would have you believe. Sweeney Todd is actually quite a colourful film. The blood, flowing in rivers, is naturally heightened to a lush scarlet, but even the usual grimy murk that Burton favours is layered with different tones and hues. The point he is making visually is not one that is desaturated by post-production tinkering, necessarily. He uses dark sets and a cast that dress in dark clothes to contrast, at times quite staggeringly, with their deathly pale complexions. His reference points, surprise, surprise, the old silent black and white chillers. The Man Who Laughs, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and, more pertinently, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger and The Phantom Of The Opera have all lent their dark and demented use of light and shadow to Burton's design aesthetic.

    The film is also refreshingly clear of any added grain, looking incredibly sharp and well-delineated throughout. A vast number of shots and scenes fill the screen with provocative imagery and oodles of detail. Crowd scenes, Todd walking though the street, the Brighton Pier sequence (which really seems to stretch out into infinity amid a radiant sky and seascape), impressively leering close-ups of wide-eyes and glinting blades, the rising shot that looks down on Depp as he stands amid the bustling throng of potential victims - all have that degree of depth and texture that you just pray a 1080p transfer will do justice to. But, of all things, I found the simple shots of Todd parading around his attic-abattoir and looking out of the skylight, or simply standing on the steps outside it, the most arresting. The angular construct of the building itself, its brickwork arrowing into the centre of the screen is something that I will using as a detailed reference point for clarity and three-dimensionality when I come to view the disc.

    All in all, Sweeney Todd looked simply amazing. Burton has made a career out of making deep shadows sexy and involving ... I feel he may have reached the pinnacle of such a presentation with this. Awesome.


    Todd is a truly exuberant movie that absolutely demands that its sound design be totally immersive and all-consuming. And the theatrical release certainly packs a wallop with some scintillating clarity of voices, raucous and ebullient music that flows all around you and most definitely drowns out any errant mobile phones, rustling sweet packets or tactless aisle chatter. The songs literally ride out around the auditorium and the mix is never less than astounding. Bass was heavy but not impenetrable and high ends shone.

    The effects of the slicing razors, the mechanism of trapdoor contraption that pitches the freshly slaughtered into the cellar and the sickening impact of dead heads smashing onto concrete are all very deliciously conveyed by the soundtrack. Some of the impacts actually made audience members audibly gasp and wince. Which is great! Subtle effects, such as crowd noise, footsteps and other acoustic asides are all clearly defined, too. There is a great sense of musical presence, naturally, but its enveloping wraparound usage is pretty impressive overall, and this is film that I would expect to be nothing short of utterly spectacular and of pure reference quality when it comes to disc. I experienced no problems with any channel overwhelming any other and the cinematic treatment was, at times, quite breathtaking.


    Sondheim-fans will actually have very little to complain about, so respectful and invigorating an adaptation this is, but many will, no doubt, bemoan the mixing of blood with ballads. Already I have come across movie-addicts who claim to be Burton-acolytes and confirmed Deppsters who have turned their noses up at the prospect of a crooning horror film and this ill-conceived opinion that Sweeney Todd will, somehow, be a lesser product just because it is a musical is frankly ludicrous. A good story, powerful performances and indelible characters will shine through ANY interpretation or medium from which they spring.

    For me, Sweeney Todd was one of the most enjoyable and deeply involving experiences that I have had at the cinema in the last couple of years. I will be seeing the film again at the flicks for sure, and clamouring for that hi-def disc when it comes out later in the year. Depp is sensational as the barbarous barber. Bonham Carter shines through her bedraggled mop of cobwebbed hair and that Elvira-of-the-gutters look. The supporting cast are clearly having a ball and Burton directs with a fluid passion for the tale, creating, once again, a Gothic alternate reality that is populated by richly-developed characters you fear, pity, despise and adore - but can never take your eyes off. As Clive Barker's Cenobites would probably agree - “Angels to some, demons to others.”

    Do yourself a favour, go and see Sweeney Todd on the big screen. The imagery is baroque and surreal, painterly and vivid, but always profoundly cinematic and the soundtrack simply sizzles. An awesome achievement that has left a mark on me as deep as a razor.

    Sweeney Todd is bold, bloody and brutally brilliant.

    The Rundown

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