Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Review
Some things in life are just made to go together. Bacon and eggs. Strawberries and cream. Starsky and Hutch.
Hollywood has also thrown up some fantastic partnerships in its long and illustrious past as well. Laurel and Hardy. Astaire and Rogers. Of course, those two partnerships come from the golden age, with Stan and Ollie first making audiences laugh even before sound was commonplace in cinemas.
Modern day cinema seems to produce fewer partnerships for some strange reason. Yes, there are the odd couple that make more than one film together, but more often than not, never more than two.
Bucking that trend are Tim Burton and Jonny Depp. With a partnership dating back to 1990's Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is the pair's sixth project together in eighteen years. Add Helena Bonham Carter on her fifth outing with the director, and you have a trio with a proven history in box office success. However, this is a movie with a difference - it's a musical. Though Burton had directed musicals before and Depp had provided the voice for the main character, the leading man had never actually sung on film before...
Based on Stephen Sondheim's stage musical of the same name, Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a skilled barber living and working in London in the 1840s'. Barker is married to the lovely Lucy and together they have a daughter and an idyllic life.
All turns sour though when the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman in his best turn since Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves) decides that Benjamin has had his share of Lucy and now wants his turn. He arranges for Barker to be set up for a crime for which he is tried, found guilty and sent to be exiled in Australia - a trial at which the nasty Turpin is presiding.
This particular version of the story opens with Barker returning from his exile to Victorian London. It's a dark and dreary place and the scene is set for the rest of the film in the opening frames...
No there's no place like London...
Barker disembarks his ship and immediately sets about looking for somewhere to stay. He comes across Mrs Lovett's pie shop. Mrs Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter), like everyone back then, is poor and meat is hard to come by. She seems proud that her pies are the worst pies in London, and offers all customers a tot of gin to get rid of the taste. Barker introduces himself as Sweeney Todd - and rents the room upstairs. And it's from here that he plots his gruesome revenge against the Judge.
You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.
Todd finds a set up where an Italian barber Pirelli (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) is selling what is supposed to be hair restorer. Todd challenges Pirelli to a shaving competition where the winner takes five pounds. In the crowd that has gathered is Beadle, lackey and general suck up to one Judge Turpin... . Beadle (Played by Timothy Spall - who seems to have left Düsseldorf a long way behind) becomes the official timekeeper for the challenge which Todd wins...
So impressed with the shave is Beadle, that he runs and tells his master the judge who tracks Todd to his barber shop above Mrs Lovett's pie shop on Fleet Street.
Pirelli also tracks down Todd to the same abode and demands his money back. It turns out that Todd and Pirelli have previous and Pirelli threatens to go to the judge and let him know that Barker is back. Only one thing for it...care for a close shave Mr Pirelli?
Todd's act of revenge soon gets out of hand. Anybody and everybody that sits in Sweeney's chair get a little closer shave than they actually paid for. The problem is, what do they do with all the bodies...?
They're the worst pies in London...
Soon, Mrs Lovett is doing a roaring trade. She can't bake the pies fast enough. But someone complains when the furnace is pumping out thick black smoke 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Beadle and the judge investigate and soon Todd and Lovetts secret is out.
It's a simple story. But I have just skimmed the surface there. There are sub-plots involving Benjamin Barkers daughter and the judge and a sailor called Anthony (played by James Campbell Bower in his first major film role). Pirellis aid Tobias also has a major part on the outcome of the movie - but I'm not going to spoil it for you...
Tim Burtons films have a reputation for being dark. Actually, that's probably a bit of an understatement - like saying Angelina Jolie is sexy...
Well, whatever you have seen of Burtons films previously, this one tops them all in the darkness stakes. Sleepy Hollow? Like Alice In Wonderland compared to this. Edward Scissorhands? Bit like watching Dumbo in comparison. Burtons depiction of Victorian London is full of squalor and decay. Tinged in black and grey, the cinematography on show here is pure Burton. It looks more like a film made in the silent era rather than the 21st century. Even the characters themselves appear to be in monochrome. Depp seems to lap this up though as he hams it up to the max. And what of those songs - remember, this is a musical, right...?
I don't know about you, but it seems that Jonny Depp can do no wrong about now. His recent CV boasts the biggest grossing movies to come out of Hollywood in the last decade. Some of them haven't even been that good (last two Pirates movies anyone...?). But, no matter how you look at it, the leading man is probably the best male actor plying his trade at this moment in time...and a very clever one.
I think I've found his formula. But don't tell anyone, will you...? This is what it is. Depp plays somebody else playing the character that he's supposed to be. Confused? Let me explain...in the Pirates trilogy, he played Captain Jack Sparrow - or rather he played Keith Richards playing Captain Jack Sparrow. And it worked. So popular is our Jack that the man who played him has had a permanent tattoo with the Captains name on it. And he does the same here - or rather does it during the songs. Here, Jonny Depp does Ziggy Stardust/David Bowie with a hint of Iggy Pop whenever he bursts into song. Listen to the opening song - London distinctly pronounced Landan But, again it works. Jonnys' past is in music but he has never confessed to being able to sing. Mostly self taught with the help of a vocal coach after he proved he could sing (I couldn't work that out either...), Depp nails the tunes. Listen out for the brilliant My Friends - a real show stopper when performed on stage, and the same goes here.
The same can't be said for Helena Bonham Carter I'm afraid. I won't put her down here as that wouldn't be fair - after all, she is an actress and not a singer. However, be warned, make sure that all pets are out of the room before she bursts into song or you'll never see them again...
However, the award for most camped up performance in the film goes to Sacha Baron Cohen as the Italian barber Pirelli. The man is a genius. And he can sing. Boy can he sing...the man who used to large it up as Ali G on our TV screen here in the UK is a huge Hollywood star in the making. Scriptwriters the world over should be tailoring their scripts to take in the Borat star to bump up the takings.
As a huge fan of musical theatre and a regular visitor to the west end, I could have been very critical of Burton's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical. After all, most of the dialogue spoken by Sweeney Todd has been left out - as has a lot of the songs, including the big opening number.
As a film lover also, I realise that at just over three hours, the stage show is a little long. The parts of the show that have been left musical theatre purists up in arms on the release of the film late last year. But I think it's been trimmed down nicely. At just shy of two hours long, it's about the perfect length for cinema audiences before they start to get bored. Remember, theatre audiences get an interlude to stretch their legs and keep their attention. Cinema audiences rarely get that luxury in this day and age. I found that my attention was never drawn from the screen and I took in every minute.
So, where does this rank among Tim Burtons other masterpieces...? If I'm honest, it took two viewings to realise just how good this film actually is. Previous Burton movies like Scissorhands and Mars Attacks struck me dumb with brilliance the first time I watched them. So does that mean it's not as good as those? That's a hard one...whilst not Burton's best work, there's so much going on onscreen that I believe may well take two or even three viewings to pick everything up.
Pure Burton it is though...and that can't be a bad thing, can it? I can recommend this movie to anyone, musical lover or not, without caveat. A bit like Paul Potts brought opera to the masses last year, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street could well be responsible to bringing musicals into every film lovers library.