10 February 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Review

Tim Burton. Johnny Depp. Dark, gothic atmosphere. Eh…musical? If that set of descriptors doesn’t make a tingle of fancy arise in the back of your skull, then there could well be nothing in the skull at all. Either that or you could just not be a fan, which is fair enough. Still, the tingle did come a-knocking for me.

Apparently in a moment of rather epic disappointment, I haven’t seen the Steven Sondheim musical upon which the movie is based – although if it would seem that this would’ve shifted my perspective of the movie somewhat, if the reactions of those who have seen the musical are anything to go by. So I stepped into Sweeney Todd with a somewhat uninitiated view of the proceedings – and with a girl whose last name is Todd, which was rather amusing seeing as mine is Sweeney…irony of ironies, no?

I have to say, I was rather impressed. I generally love Tim Burton movies – yes, even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; although I’ll give a miss to Planet of the Apes – mainly for the dark, slightly disturbing streak that he infuses into his films – yes, even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; although I’ll give a miss to Planet of the Apes. It’s interesting, because it’s almost invariably juxtaposed with what could be construed as rather light subject material. A recluse who likes to cut hedges; aliens invading earth; a man who tells tall tales. And now, a musical about a barber…who just so happens to rather enjoy a good arterial spray.

Burton wonderfully continues with tradition, and here the juxtaposition is between the dark, slightly creepy atmosphere of the London he’s created – every bit the shithole that Depp’s Sweeney Todd insists it is – with the relatively upbeat bounces of the musical numbers. The place is deliciously macabre in almost every respect, from the dark, overpowering presence of the buildings towering overhead, to the splashes of claret that speckle the floors when Sweeney does start on his rampage.

The script – apparently tweaked from the Broadway production for the silver screen – is tight and drives the story along at a pleasing pace, revealing just enough back story whist never getting distracted from the main happenings. It’s also oddly convincing – even with people bursting into song rather erratically – and frequently, albeit blackly, amusing. Sometimes, an old guy getting his throat nonchalantly slashed with a straight razor can’t do anything but bring a rather twisted grin to your lips.

Depp once again shines – if he keeps doing it, he could well be named one of the greatest actors ever – bringing a gravitas to Sweeney, peering out from behind eyes surrounded by dark circles, hating everything he sees and consumed by his quest for vengeance. It’s not just in the spoken parts either, he brings this quality to the songs too, his dark, gravely singing voice dripping with hidden meaning. Helena Bonham Carter too puts in another fantastic turn as Mrs Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime and someone who just so happens to be falling madly in love with the man. It’s slightly surreal, yet – again – strangely plausible, mostly thanks to Depp’s charisma shining through, and her interestingly innocent characterisation.

The supporting cast, too, shine wonderfully. Alan Rickman as the antagonist Judge Turpin is suitably evil, yet he somehow brings a mote of dignity to the role; this is a man who was consumed by jealousy, and simply didn’t know what else to do. Timothy Spall could actually be considered as a primary villain, hamming it up delightfully as Turpin’s crony Beadle Bamford. Then there’s a brilliantly silly more-or-less cameo appearance from Sacha Baron Cohen as an ‘Italian’ barber who claims to have given the pope the closest shave ever, and whom Sweeney expertly defeats in one of the more surreal penis-measuring contests you’ll see for a while.

Be warned, however, this is a full blooded 18 certificate. Whilst I could take most of it, there’s one scene towards the end that is a cut above the rest in its gory, rather disturbing nature, and it did have me squirming. Though annoyingly, the credits rolled not a minute later, and thus I was left unsure as to whether or not I actually truly enjoyed the film. But it’s bloody funny, bloody dark and bloody…bloody – and it all adds up to one of the most entertaining films for a while now, and it’ll certainly rank among Burton’s best.

Ross' Rating: 8

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