Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street Review

I’ve seen six different productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street and have always come away in awe of the brilliance of the achievement of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler in taking unpromising material and turning it into a vast, gothic revenge tragedy with songs. It’s a piece which can all manner of different theatrical handlings from West End pomp to stripped-down Studio. My biggest fear was that in filming Sweeney Todd, and cutting it by an hour, Tim Burton might somehow traduce the material and its delicate balance between tragic melodrama and rowdy Music Hall. But he hasn’t; Stephen Sondheim’s original vision is right here - red, raw and dripping.

The story of Sweeney Todd was a staple of turn-of-the-century popular theatre and was memorably filmed in the 1930s with Tod Slaughter at his most barnstorming as he declaims, “I’ll soon polish him off!” Christopher Bond’s 1973 play took the myth and added a tragic element and his work provided the basis for Sondheim’s 1979 Broadway musical. Sweeney Todd becomes as much sinned-against as sinner, his murderous acts a scheme of vengeance against those who falsely imprisoned him and took his young wife and daughter. Where it all goes wrong is when revenge becomes indiscriminate killing and it is at this point that Todd’s confused morality leads inexorably to tragedy. He’s assisted in his design by the duplicitous Mrs Lovett (Bonham-Carter) whose disastrous meat-pie business receives an unexpected boost from the unusual ingredients furnished by the results of Todd’s killings. The objects of his reckoning are the hypocritical Judge Turpin (Rickman) and his odious sidekick Beadle Bamford (Spall) but getting to them is complicated due to the presence, as ward, in Turpin’s house of Todd’s daughter Johanna (Wisener) and the well-intentioned but unfortunate interventions of her would-be suitor Anthony (Bower).

This story is suitably hysterical to make a fine melodrama and Tim Burton films it, as one has to, with total conviction. This would be impossible without the right performances and in Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter he has exactly the right leads. At first, viewers might wonder why Depp is so grimly one-note but it gradually becomes apparent that he’s submerged his own personality into the character and the single-minded impulse to revenge. Depp does find light and shade in his performance, particularly in a couple of the more comic songs, but his decision to make Todd a terrifyingly obsessive symbol of retribution – the dispossessed turning on their social superiors and, literally, devouring them. His voice is pretty good too, an attractive baritone. Perhaps a stronger singer might have made more of some of the soaring moments of song – the reprise of “Johanna” while he cuts the throats of numerous unfortunates can give you chills when you hear Len Cariou sing it on the original Broadway cast album – but the strength of his performance sweeps away most of any lingering doubts.

As for Helena Bonham-Carter, she does some of her best work since Wings of the Dove. Her Mrs Lovett is offbeat and funny but she gives her a slightly distant look which provides a valuable edge of romantic yearning as she makes Todd misunderstand a crucial detail – which I will not reveal – simply because she has fallen in love with him. Carter’s voice is excellent throughout, particularly in her best song, “By The Sea” – even if the most amusing line from that song has been unaccountably cut.

In support, Alan Rickman is at his slimiest as the blackhearted Judge – a mealy-mouthed puritan who mouths moral platitudes from the bench one day and dreams of raping his ward just as he did her mother the next. Rickman has fun with the evil but also manages to imply the spiritual cost of amorality as he finally sits in the barber’s seat, haggard and spent. Timothy Spall enjoys himself as another of his seedy grotesques – although after this and Fagin, he really needs to play a romantic lead in a contemporary comedy. Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener make an attractive pair of young lovers and Bower has an excellent voice and range. But the biggest surprise is Sacha Baron Cohen whose turn as the ludicrous “Italian” barber Pirelli is entirely in keeping with the tone of the piece, especially when he drops the phoney accent and finds a tinge of menace.

Tim Burton respects the material enormously, particularly the music which is placed very prominently – about two-thirds of the “dialogue” is sung and the songs advance the narrative and develop the characters rather than being set-pieces in themselves. But he brings two things to the musical which make it a scintillating piece of cinema. The first is his black humour which blends with that of Sondheim to create some laugh-out-loud moments and an overall sense of the grotesque which just about stops short this side of ludicrous. If it slightly tips over towards the end, that’s got a lot to do with the nature of this kind of melodrama where the tragedy has to be massively theatrical and, as such, divorced from reality. Burton realises that copious amounts of bloodletting cross the border from shocking into comic and uses our mixed reaction to unnerve and slightly puzzle us – in other words, to keep us from becoming too comfortable with the film. The second thing Burton brings is his astonishing visual sense, creating an environment which is all too credibly repulsive. One thing we know for sure about Victorian London is how dirty, foggy and intimidating it was and Burton runs with this to remarkable effect, aided and abetted by Dante Ferretti’s fanatically detailed production design and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography – almost monochrome except for the reds of the blood.

If this review seems unusually gushing, that’s because I’m a huge fan of the musical and am simply delighted both that Tim Burton was chosen to direct and that he has done such a fantastic job with it. It should be made very clear that this isn’t likely to be to everybody’s taste and that has a lot to do with Sondheim’s style. His songs are often very “hummable” indeed but they tend to be broken up so that potential singalong numbers like “Not While I’m Around” are divided into a few sections throughout a scene. This makes it an uncharacteristic screen musical so fans of traditional musicals are likely to be alienated. Obviously, anyone who hates musicals is likely to be turned-off as well – there were reports of people walking out of cinemas because they didn’t realise it had singing in it. But the sheer quality of the filmmaking on display, the intelligent script by John Logan, the class of the performances and the power of the tragedy means that those who stick with the film are unlikely to forget it. If it’s not quite the best film of the year so far, it’s certainly in there pitching.

The Disc

As you’d expect for such a recent release, the quality of the image on this DVD is absolutely superb. Presented in a progressive and anamorphic transfer, the 1.85:1 transfer is a stunner. It faithfully reproduces the very specific scheme of the film where most of the colour has been bled out and, consequently, the blood-reds really stand out. Detail is exceptional and the fine grain offers a gorgeous film-like appearance.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack naturally emphasises the music above everything else and does so with gusto. The songs soar across the channels emphasised by the pounding bass. Dialogue remains clear throughout however and what sound effects there are – surprisingly few – are rendered very well.

There is no commentary - not a loss considering the usual quality of Mr. Burton’s commentary tracks - so all the extras are on the second disc. There are eight featurettes, none longer than 25 minutes. The best are the three historical overviews, one of the story behind the legend, one about Victorian London and another about the tradition of Grand Guignol. These are serious and reasonably scholarly, although there is much debate about whether Sweeney Todd actually existed. The making-of features tend to share a lot of material but the first, "Burton+Depp+Carter=Todd" is fairly interesting with some good interview material. Stephen Sondheim is much in evidence, granting his seal of approval to a project which has always been very close to his heart.

There are 24 chapter stops and optional English subtitles.

Sweeney Todd is strong meat but it’s also thoroughly delicious – as long as your constitution can take it. This DVD from Warner Brothers presents it beautifully and adds some interesting extra features. A very worthwhile purchase indeed.

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