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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - A second opinion

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Review by David Munro

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

ATTEND the tale of Sweeney Todd…… the demon Barber of Fleet Street”. Sweeney Todd is probably Stephen Sondheim’s most durable work.

Originally produced in 1979 in the vast Broadway Uris Theatre in a cavernous set representing a factory, it has succeeded subsequently in more conventional theatrical productions, to wit at the Drury Lane Theatre, in Opera Houses and even as a concert-type oeuvre at the tiny Trafalgar Studios where the cast doubled as the orchestra.

It will probably outlive all other Sondheim works and be, for him, the memorial that Porgy and Bess is for George Gershwin in the pantheon of great musical dramas.

Its voyage towards immortality has been given another boost in a film version directed by Tim Burton (on general release January 25, 2007) starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and supported by a strong cast of English character actors including Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall.

The original musical (described as a “Musical Thriller”) is based on a version of the Sweeney Todd legend as dramatised by Christopher Bond and subsequently adapted by Hugh Wheeler.

It tells the story of a man, wrongly convicted of a crime so that the Judge could rape his wife, returning to London to seek vengeance.

He sets up trade as a barber and after he initially fails to kill the Judge decides to wreak his vengeance on all mankind by slitting the throats of all his customers.

The remains of his victims are turned into meat pies by a Mrs Lovett whose pie shop is conveniently situated below the barber’s shop; the resolution of this situation and the denouement of the plot will be discovered by you when you see the film – suffice it to say it is shocking, gripping and gory.

The film (screenplay by John Logan) sticks closely to the tale as told by the musical and, whilst obviously it is shorn of some of the numbers, it takes in the majority of the score and all the principal songs/arias which are sung by the performers themselves, who whilst not aspiring to operatic voices, cope extremely well with the plangencies and harmonies of Sondheim’s music and lyrics.

However, Tim Burton has transformed this somewhat squalid tale into a film of visual gothic beauty and style. He eschews colour for a monochromatic drabness illuminated from time to time by brilliant flashes of red and an occasional Technicolor dream sequence.

His is the London of Dickens only as seen through the eyes of Sweeney Todd as colourless, dour and threatening; the opening sequences of a ship coming up the Thames in the grey morning light are particularly evocative.

He has got correspondingly compatible performances from his cast. Johnny Depp’s Sweeney is a man wracked by injustice and demented by the London he now finds himself in; he moves in a silent world of his own, broken only by outbursts of frustration and dispatches his victims as though he were sacrificing them to “a dark and revengeful god”.

It is a performance which bordered on boredom saved only by Depp’s ability to play variations on the theme with his expressionistic face and expressive body language.

As Mrs Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter gives a performance which makes one wonder if this was the same actress who simpered her way through the Merchant and Ivory classics.

She is sly, venal, totally amoral and hypocritical yet everything she does, good or bad, is suffused with a manic good humour, which while it cannot disguise her manipulations, seem to show them in at least a reasonable light. It is the best performance I have seen her give, totally in character and frighteningly real. In her own way, she is as good if not (dare I say it) better than Depp.

Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall as the villains of the piece flesh out (if somewhat disagreeably) their slightly melodramatic characters and if their villainy appears somewhat larger than life Burton makes it clear it is through Sweeney Todd’s eyes we are viewing them.

Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Brown, as the lovers, are conventionally insipid and tiresome but the actors do their best to render them believable and the scenes of the latter walking through the deserted streets of Burton’s London are peaceful oasis’s of rest from the hysterical goings-on in the Todd/Lovett household.

As Signor Pirelli, the pseudo Italian barber and blackmailer of Todd, Sasha Baron Cohen is surprisingly effective and restrained (in so far as the part allows); a delightful cameo.

Toby, Pirelli’s apprentice, who moves into Mrs Lovett’s employ, is usually played as a young man, but is here played by a boy, Edward Sanders, which adds extra poignancy to the role although, despite Mr Sanders’ excellent and moving performance, I did wonder whether, in fact, a boy would have had the strength to carry out his vital role in the denouement.

A surprising piece of casting, although perfectly justified by her performance, was Laura Michelle Kelly as a beggar Woman (I always knew Mary Poppins would come to a bad end!) who moves, Cassandra-like through the action declaiming woe and ruin on all and sundry.

All in all this is a perfectly cast and beautifully acted piece of melodramatic hokum, transformed by Sondheim’s music and lyrics and Burton’s impeccable direction and brilliant vision into a first class piece of cinematic art; in short, it is a bloody (in every sense of the word) good film which no one should miss!

b>Read Jack Foley’s verdict

Certificate: 18
Running time: 1hr 56mins