WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Benjamin Barker returns to London, his identity changed and hell-bent on dispatching the corrupt judge who falsely deported him to take advantage of his wife, his vengeance fuelled by learning the judge has taken Todd’s own daughter as his ward. He plots his revenge using his skills as an expert barber, and his bloody trade has fringe benefits for the mouldy pie-shop directly beneath his chair.
Despite being an admirer of musicals in both theatrical and cinematic forms, I must confess that Sondheim has always left me cold. For me, he over-complicates, musically and lyrically, for the sake of being complicated. Perhaps you listen to a lot of facile old rubbish, you may say. And you could be right: but I like to respond intuitively to music and Sondheim’s tricky rhythms, over-stuffed lines and gratuitous discords are distractions to doing so.
It is greatly to Burton’s credit, therefore, that Sweeney Todd is still a really enjoyable film. No doubt sacrificing potential audience to be true to his vision (the film has an ‘18’ Certificate in the UK), Burton’s Grand Guignol presentation of the story is literally drenched in blood. It’s not a film for the squeamish, but it is fitting to the tale that you should see the full horror of Todd’s cut-throat business. Though there are many moments of grim humour, in essence this is no laughing matter.
The film has two enormous aspects in its favour. The first is that the director’s imagination is perfectly suited to the material: if pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett is not a Corpse Bride she comes pretty damn close, and Todd is a living ghost, remaining on Earth with the sole purpose of revenge. In costume and set design (the main set, properly, stays close to its stage roots) the feeling of a stinking London town is vividly portrayed. The cinematography is right too, with a washed-out, murky palette, except for a few flashbacks and an amusing fantasy sequence at the beach.
The other delight is the cast. Johnny Depp is superb in the title role, completely switching off his natural charm to play the demented demon barber; we can see throughout that his eyes and his soul are already dead. Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs Lovett is a needy, cadaverous wretch, and the pairing of Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall as Judge Turpin and his beadle is inspired. Rickman’s lasciviousness is unsettling but necessary as we should feel that he deserves his fate. As the young sailor Anthony, Jamie Campbell Bower acquits himself well in a fairly unexciting role; Sacha Baron Cohen has an entertaining (and surprisingly powerful) cameo; and finally, young Ed Sanders is good as protective, gin-loving Toby.
The downsides? While it’s not fair to criticise the film for any faults in the musical, Sweeney Todd isn’t a film that you leave with a host of tunes on your lips. The soft ballad Johanna apart, it’s difficult to pick out a particularly memorable melody – although the comedy of Worst Pies in London and A Little Priest does help to offset this. Also, the singing, whilst in no respects of Tommy-esque proportions, is of variable quality.
I have no problems with Depp taking off Anthony Newley – it was good enough for David Bowie, after all – but Carter’s voice is a little thin, especially at the higher range. Also, I found Jayne Wisener to be unconvincing as both singer and actress in the role of Johanna, and found myself distracted by her doll-like features (most notably the size of her head) when she was on screen.
I was also very grateful that the main film featured none of the stylised but utterly unconvincing CGI of the opening credits. I had never previously considered how credits affected my perception of the impending film, but after Sweeney Todd’s I feared the worst.
Thankfully, however, my expectations were easily exceeded. Fans of Depp, Burton and musicals should definitely make space on their shelves for Sweeney Todd; and other viewers, so long as they have the constitution for it, should give the demon barber a visit too.