Film Review – Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I was in a quandary about watching Sweeney Todd. On the one hand, I enjoy the films of Tim Burton, especially those with Johnny Depp; on the other hand, I’m not a great fan of musicals. Fortunately, seeing a free preview solved the dilemma.

I had never seen the musical or even knew the story, apart from the obvious facts deduced from the title; I was intrigued after its appearance, of sorts, in Jersey Girl and Kevin Smith’s appreciation for the musical. The story is straightforward – Depp is Benjamin Barker, a talented barber with a wife and daughter, who is sent to Australia by a judge (Alan Rickman) who covets his wife and child. He returns, changing his name to Sweeney Todd, and vows vengeance. He returns to the shop he once had, above the pie shop owned by Mrs Lovett (Helen Bonham Carter), who secretly loves him still and recognises him. Setting up as a barber once more, he thinks of only getting Judge Turpin into his chair. Things get complicated when his young friend falls in love with his daughter, the ward of Judge Turpin, who moves her into an asylum to punish her for threatening to run away with the boy. But vengeance will be had, no matter what the cost …

The most notorious aspect of the story is the killing of men and them turning them into pies, and this is not ignored in the film. Men’s throats are cut and fountains of arterial blood flow on the screen. It still makes for a very bizarre musical. The music itself fits well with the theme and the film, dark and foreboding or lighter when appropriate, but the songs themselves didn’t impact. I have already forgotten the tunes and lyrics of most of the numbers, so little impact did they have. The only two that stick in the mind are the shaving face off (but that is more for Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious portrayal of Pirelli, which had everyone in the audience in fits of hysterics) and the duet between Mrs Lovett and Todd about turning people into pies. Still, the story is strong enough to cope with having to burst into song every so often (something that is also noticeable by its absence in the adverts for the film; no singing is shown in any of them).

The main characters are all very good, both in acting and even singing. Depp shows he can do everything, the talented bastard, and Carter is great as Mrs Lovett, pining for Todd and dreaming of a future together even after the pies and revenge. In a reunion of Harry Potter actors with Carter, Rickman and Timothy Spall as his fixer are equally good (although Rickman’s singing voice seems rather higher than one would expect based on his mellifluous speaking voice, especially in a duet with Depp).

As usual with a Burton film, it is the director who has an equally good performance. The film is shot in almost black and white, leaving room for only one colour – the shocking claret of blood. As mentioned, the film is not afraid to show the violence of the piece, as we see throats slit in front of our eyes and blood gushing everywhere. London never looked more Victorian and run down than in Burton’s vision of a bleak and dirty capital city. The camera swoops and haunts the back streets and the passionate faces (Todd in revenge, Lovett in love). It is the perfect story for Burton, one inspired by love but reeking of darkness.

The film is a powerful one, with the effects of revenge and violence being felt on all in the story (this is not a happy movie, just in case you didn’t know; it’s a tragedy but with songs) and, even though you may wish otherwise, you know how it will end. I would agree with an opinion I read – the story is strong enough and the Burton film powerful enough that the singing isn’t really necessary – but then I guess that is what makes it so different from the usual fare. It also has an unexpected turn of events that I didn’t see coming, so I can’t help but enjoy and recommend the film.

Rating: DAVE

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