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SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)

March 7, 2008

Sweeney Todd review
Sweeney Todd

Matt: Three and a half Stars
Tracy: Three stars

Length: 116 min

Taglines:
Never Forget. Never Forgive
Beware! Sweeney Todd is coming. This Christmas.
Sweeney Todd. He never forgets and he never forgives.

Précis: An ultra-bloody gothic musical and a reminder that you can never be sure what’s in your meat pie.

Review by Matt:

Hey, have you ever seen one of those films where you thought “yeah, that was pretty good, but there was just a little bit too much throat-cutting, corpse-eating and spewing fountains of blood for me to really enjoy it.”?

I know. Me too. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Yep, the cheery oompa loompas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were well and truly banished from Tim Burton’s mind before he made this one. Possibly he even cooked and ate them (I understand they’re kind of chocolatey). He’s replaced them with his two favourite goths – Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter – and a dark, dark mood. The result is a demonic and tragic revenge play that is mostly clever and dramatic, but also amazingly gory. Throat-slashingly, people-eatingly, blood-spewingly gory. But that’s ok – if you need to take your mind off all of that just focus on the song and dance numbers. Oh – did I not mention? That’s right, the story of Sweeney Todd is told almost entirely through song.

It’s in fact based on Stephen Sondheim’s popular 1979 Broadway production of the same name. Sticking closely to the original production, Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd tells of the vengeance sought by a wronged man, Benjamin Barker the Barber (Johnny Depp). In grimy Dickensian London, the loathsome Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman with familiar Professor Snape snakiness) transports poor Barker off to a convict life, simply because he covets Barker’s wife. When Barker creeps back into London he has a new identity – Sweeney Todd – and a single‑minded desire for revenge. With Sweeney’s beloved wife dead, his child Johanna (Jayne Wisner) has become Judge Turpin’s ward. Turpin’s Woody-Allen-like desire for the maturing Johanna adds the icing to Sweeney’s maniacal wrath. But wait – how can he kill Turpin when the Judge is ensconced in his privileged world and secure mansion? No problem. Sweeney opens a barber’s studio above the slovenly Mrs Lovett’s (Helena Bonham-Carter) pie shop. His blades are sharpened. He just has to get Turpin to come to him.

But Sweeney’s bubbling vengeance is so great that it spills from him before Turpin even arrives, and that’s where the film leaves the standard revenge plot behind and burrows somewhere much darker. With Sweeney’s bloody business upstairs and Mrs Lovett’s struggling meatpie business downstairs, things take a macabre course. The symbiosis revitalises the business (though I don’t know why customers so trustingly visit a couple who look like they’ve just risen from the grave). “How delectable … also undetectable!” sings Sweeney of the plan, in one of many playful lyrics about the grossest of subjects.

Sondheim is a multiple award winning musical and film lyricist who’s works include West Side Story and Sunday in the Park With George, so it’s no surprise that some of the lyrics are pretty canny. There is actually a lot of music though, and some of it feels a bit lacklustre. Possibly this is partly due to the subdued delivery; Johnny Depp isn’t a bad singer, but he doesn’t quite produce the operatic brilliance that you’d expect from a stage musical. Possibly also it is hard to appear lustrous in a London seemingly coloured in only blue and black shadows. That’s part of the problem with the film – it seems flat, especially for a musical with a freakish topic. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter meld quietly into the darkness like wraiths, and although their performances are good, sadly they somehow seem to suck some life from the film. On the other hand, there are some exciting and funny songs, like the ‘shave-off’ sequence when Sweeney battles the boasting barber Pirelli (played by Sacha Baron Cohen channelling both Ali G and Borat).

Sweeney Todd is a pretty unique experience; strange and tragic and occasionally repellent. I know it obviously wasn’t Tim Burton’s vision, but it would have entertained me more if the film highlighted the dark comedy in the story. It dribbles some comedy occasionally and you think the smiles are about to flow. But all that flows is the blood from another slashing. It’s never really funny, and there is barely a moment of relief from the oppressive London gloom. Still, it’s clever, memorable, and enjoyably twisted – certainly in a different genre than the loathsome slasher films that are around at the moment. I just feel sorry for the poor middle-aged mothers who go into this film on Sunday afternoon thinking “Oh that Johnny Depp was so silly as Jack Sparrow, and so adorable as Willy Wonka – what’s he up to now?” and they stagger out after two hours trembling and looking like Helena Bonham-Carter.

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5 comments

  1. Brutal killing plus Depp singing career, what more can I say…a collaboration of good and evil…


  2. favorited this one, dude


  3. I agree with you about a moment of my own discourse in the story. I enjoy Burtons sense of dark humour as well, and I felt like it was compeletely non existent in this film. While I enjoyed it, it is a trademark quality of Burton’s talent that is undeniably brilliant and sadly missed during Sweeney Todd.


  4. Can any one tell me the name of the singer Johanna, sung with Jhonny Depp. I like the male voice pretty much. It’s so coool.


  5. Pankaj, I think you mean Jamie Campbell Bower, the actor who played Antony.



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