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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

ON THE surface, the sixth collaboration between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton would seem to be a sure thing based on past success. In truth, it’s arguably their riskiest venture yet.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an 18-certificate musical that embodies (or rather disembodies!) elements of cannibalism, murder, abuse and madness. In studio terms, it’s not an easy sell.

Based on the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, and featuring his music, the film is a violent tale of revenge that provides Depp with his darkest role to date and Burton a wealth of new challenges. It’s credit to all concerned that the production emerges as an unqualified success.

The film picks up as Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a man unjustly imprisoned for 15 years on the other side of the world, returns to London vowing revenge under the guise of Sweeney Todd. Enlisting the help of pie shop owner Mrs Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) he sets about targeting Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who, with help from his henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), shipped him off on a trumped-up charge in order to steal his wife, Lucy, and his baby daughter, Johanna, from him.

To complicate matters still further, Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is now locked away in Turpin’s mansion and has attracted the keen eye of a young man named Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), a sailor who rescued Sweeney from the sea, who vows to free her from captivity. Can Todd carry out his plans whilst keeping his true identity hidden? And will Ms Lovett be able to keep the real ingredients of her tasty new pies a secret as the body count rises in suitably grisly fashion?

As with any Tim Burton production, Sweeney Todd looks spectacular and seems tailor-made for the director to further expand the dark tendencies that inhabit the majority of his work. London is grey, often black, which makes the thick red blood seem all the more pronounced once the throat-slitting starts.

And yet there’s a black humour running throughout, whether it’s contained within the cheeky lyrics of Sondheim’s award-winning songs or the priceless expressions that abound from an extremely talented cast, which helps to prevent Sweeney Todd from becoming an overly bleak experience.

Rather, audiences can revel in the set pieces, whilst marvelling at the design and savouring every delicious performance. Depp, as we have come to expect, is typically excellent as the revenge obsessed Todd, mastering the songs in effortless fashion and convincing wholeheartedly as a cold-hearted killer whose single minded determination to get some payback blinds him to the tragedies unfolding around him.

Carter, too, throws herself into the role of Mrs Lovett with utter conviction, balancing a similarly murderous inclination with moments of heartbreaking devotion to a man who will never return her affection, while Rickman and Spall provide excellent villains (the former, especially, revelling in his scenes with Depp), and the likes of Bower, Ed Sanders and Laura Michelle Kelly (a West End luminary) offer notable support. Watch out, too, for a grandstanding extended cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as a rival barber with a sinister connection to Todd’s past.

The songs fly thick and fast but work well in tandem with the story rather than impeding it, and while there’s less emphasis on the romance between Anthony and Johanna than in the Broadway version, it serves to prevent the film from becoming an overly lengthy experience.

Rather, by playing up the inherent tragedy of Todd’s story during the final scenes, Burton cleverly brings the film to an unexpectedly poignant conclusion with a final scene that borders on genius. If – like me – you have little knowledge of the original, then it serves to bring the curtain down on an involving emotional tale that also provides a breathtaking visual treat. It is, simply put, bloody brilliant.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 1hrs 56mins
UK DVD Release Date: May 19, 2008