Sometime in the 1840s an unknown author wrote “The String of Pearls” and brought the character of Sweeney Todd to life. In the early part of the 20th century Tod Slaughter (born Norman Carter Slaughter but you have to admit a superb stage name if you're performing Sweeney Todd!) often performed this on both stage and screen. Christopher Bond wrote the stage play in 1973, then in 1979 Steven Sondheim eventually took this to Broadway in one of his most respected and critically acclaimed musicals. Tim Burton eventually saw this in London and although he is reportedly not a great fan of musicals knew there and then that at some point he wanted to take this to the big screen. That was some 20 years ago and more but in 2007 he finally fulfilled his promise.
The story of Sweeney Todd is known throughout the land, well in this land certainly, and this adaptation adds a little flesh to those already blood dripping bones. Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is returning to London after 15 years. For that length of time he has been incarcerated in far away lands on a trumped up charge by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who took a fancy to his wife. He returns seeking revenge but finds his daughter now a ward of Judge Turpin and his wife, having committed suicide, no longer with us.
This turn of events only makes him more bitter, more determined to seek out his revenge. He returns to his original Barber's shop, where underneath Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) makes the worst pies in London. She takes in Sweeny, offers him his old Barber's shop and together they not only devise a plan to enable Sweeney to exact his revenge but in the process transform her pies into something much tastier.
I've always had admiration for Tim Burton, he's one of these directors whose films I would go and see on a whim, without knowing anything about them, without reading any reviews. He's proved to be consistent from Beetlejuice onwards and apart from his shockingly awful remake of Planet of the Apes has hardly put a foot wrong. Much the same can be said about Johnny Depp; he has starred in excellent films, Platoon, Donnie Brasco, Blow, and has always produced some wonderful performances. He can be regarded as one of the leading actors from our generation, his work is varied, he's always dedicated and as certainly the first Pirates film shows he has great imagination and can act better than most people currently out there.
Both he and Burton have teamed up on a number of features before, starting with Edward Scissorhands the altogether excellent Ed Wood to Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it's as almost they are family, they know each others moods and needs long before the other does, they work well together, understand each other and ultimately the films they both produce are more than enjoyable affairs. Much the same can be said about Sweeney Todd
It's a dark tale of revenge and gore, yet even here (as in most other Burton/Depp collaborations) has an undercurrent of macabre humour which allows the viewer to somehow distance themselves from the blood and guts which freely flow, looking on not as participant but voyeur almost. Unlike some of Burton's earlier ventures though which are somewhat comical in nature this has a Shakespearian tragedy feel to it much like his initial venture with Depp and Edward Scissorhands. I felt his direction developed a little when he made Big Fish and he has continued that evolutionary process here. This is even darker than some of his earlier works; if that is at all possible and is much the better for it.
The acting is excellent. As mentioned earlier Depp can always be counted upon to show his worth and his portrayal of the haunted, tragic Sweeney Todd and not the bogey man we have been told from early bedtime stories but someone who has a heartfelt grievance. We may not agree with his methods but we can certainly relate to why he comes upon his final path. Helena Bonham Carter is his perfect foil as the diabolical Mrs Lovett, both being the cause of Sweeney's salvation and ultimate demise. Both seem to enjoy the dark, gothic nature of the film and are perfectly suited to their roles. Sparring partners include Alan Rickman as the love struck magistrate with henchman Timothy Spall at his side, Sacha Baron Cohen as a beleaguered Italian competitor and a wonderful performance from a young Edward Sanders as Toby. All of them were required to sing their own parts and this proved to be very demanding of them indeed. Being in the studios recording the vocals long before they set foot on stage they had to imagine where their characters would be at any one point in any one scene; to try and fit the vocals into what they would be doing at the time. When musicals are mentioned then none of these actors spring to mind as leading ladies or men but their vocals are exemplary and a credit to both the actors and the people who trained them.
Sondheim himself had final say in the casting decisions and it seems that after seeing some of their work he had no complaints with Burton's initial choices. His score comes across beautifully though, deep, melancholy, mournful and detailed. In my own opinion Burton is the most natural choice to take that haunting score and move it from stage to screen. He has done so admirably. There are not many Broadway shows that have made a decent progression from stage to screen, West Side Story (another lyrical piece by Sondheim) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show being my two personal favourites; but now I have a third to add to that list and I look forward to catching this show as and when I can in the theatre. His melodies are wonderfully reproduced and his lyrics are to die for; dark and foreboding with a subtle hint of humour attached. Sondheim himself mentions that he has never been pleased with any of his works making their way to the big screen but he is more than happy with this one. The fact that he had input into the production probably goes a long way to realising that dream.
Burton has always been a fan of the Gothic and Victorian London has always been screaming out for him. Depp himself experienced it in From Hell and to his credit toned down his somewhat ludicrous accent for this film, but this is Burton's first venture into this arena and it has suited him well. It allows him and his production designer to go to town on recreating the grimy filth ridden dark streets of that time. Burton is in his element certainly. Production values are excellent from those diseased streets, the crumbling brickwork, the costumes and the pale make-up applied to our main protagonists faces. Ultimately this is yet another string in Burton and Depp's bows, continuing their illustrious careers; going from strength to strength. The best Burton so far and Depp showing again that he is not afraid to take on a role which might not have been naturally his; he has shown though that he can belt out a good number.
If you're a Burton fan then you'll obviously love this and musical lovers will enjoy Sondheim's work yet again being produced so well for the big screen. Fans of film who perhaps don't always take to musicals should though perhaps think again because this is a wonderfully told story; dark and tragic, director and each actor in their total element. Highly recommended.
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