Helena Bonham Carter
Sacha Baron Cohen
Jamie Campbell Bower
Laura Michelle Kelly
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2008)
14th Feb 08
Fifteen years after being falsely accused and then incarcerated Down Under, barber Benjamin Barber (Johnny Depp) escapes, returning to his hometown of London.
Renaming himself as Sweeney Todd, he re-opens his barber shop above a meat pie shop, still owned by his former landlady Mrs Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Todd is looking to exact revenge on those who sentenced him and also raped his wife Lucy and stole away his daughter Johanna.
It’s not long before Todd is taking his wrath out on anyone who frequents his workplace, slicing their throats with his trusty razor, but what to do with the bodies? Meat pie anyone?
Some years in development and having gone through a couple of name directors – Alan Parker and Sam Mendes – Stephen Sondheim’s eight-Tony award winning stage musical has finally arrived on the screen, directed by the guy who has made gothic and gloomy his forte – Mr. Tim Burton.
With a career C.V. of late that has seen him ruin Planet of the Apes, before sending us all to sleep with his whimsical Big Fish, it is pleasing to report that the man is back on form. It’s a form that reminds of his superior works – the bleached framing of 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, the bad hair and black rimmed eyes and madness of Beetlejuice and the wonderfully gothic look that only Burton does so well.
Burton was adamant that his take on Sweeney Todd would not shy away from the blood letting. He had seen stage versions where the red stuff was cut from the proceedings or cut back on. Such an omission Burton felt this robbed the piece of some of its power as it’s through the slitting of throats that Todd achieves an emotional release. Chuck in a side order of cannibalism and it is not hard to see why Hollywood was nervous of the project, with the relatively meager budget, for a film of this scope, was split between three studios. And this is before anyone thought to consider whether the lead actor could actually sing.
Although this is the sixth time that Johnny Depp has collaborated with Tim Burton, after Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride, even the director had no clue as to whether Depp could hold a note. It is known that Depp has dabbled with music in the past, having played guitar for a number of bands, but he was never ever the singer. This didn’t stop Burton from declaring that he would not make the movie without Depp. Imagine the collective sigh of relief when it turned out the former Jack Sparrow could indeed warble with the best of them.
Burton’s refusal to accept anyone else as his Sweeney Todd paid off. Depp’s performance is outstanding as the revenge-seeking barber of Fleet Street, whether brooding in the dark or taking the life of another customer he is a revelation. Depp exudes an electricity that his recent ‘just here to pick up the pay check’ turns in the last two Pirates movies sorely lacked. It is a treat to see the man on such fine form.
Depp is ably supported by Helena Bonham-Carter, who snatched the lead female role of Mrs. Lovett, from under the noses of Meryl Streep, Annette Bening and Toni Collette. One could be forgiven for assuming that she got the role purely because her partner was directing it. This was not the case at all, with Bonham-Carter required to audition along with everyone else. After much training, involving singing lessons and even studying baking, she sent her audition tapes to Stephen Sondheim. Her work paid off as he liked what he heard very much and she went on and won the role.
Bonham-Carter has had a varied and rather eclectic career starting off in costume dramas such as A Room With A View, taking in Fight Club along the way before finding time to squeeze in a few roles for Mr, Burton. She proves a suitable match for Depp’s masterful performance ably conveying her ache for Todd’s affection.
The support cast are all magnificent, but then when have the likes of Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall ever put a foot wrong? The revelation amongst the supporting cast members is in seeing the artist formerly known as Borat – Sacha Baron Cohen – as rival barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli. It’s a role as rich and colourful as his other big screen creation and bodes well for his career away from Kazakhstan.
After seeing his roles in other notable movies chopped out or heavily truncated – most famously from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - it must come as a given now for veteran actor Christopher Lee to see his work end up on the cutting room floor and resurface later as a DVD extra. The song that both he and Buffy star Anthony Head had recorded for the film, ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’, was eventually removed along with several other songs from the Broadway version. Burton, and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) considered them too theatrical for the big screen with many other songs remaining but appearing in a shortened form to ensure that the three hour play would fit snugly into a two-hour movie.
Unlike other more recent musicals that have transferred from the stage to the screen, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers, Sweeney Todd proved a success with critics finishing the year on a number of critics’ shortlists for the best movie of 2007. Burton’s movie also went on to win top prizes at the Golden Globes with Best Picture Comedy or Musical and Best Actor Comedy or Musical for Johnny Depp. Three Oscar nominations have been awarded to the film with Depp in the running for Best Actor.
Financially musicals are a bit of a dog at the box office, however despite opening on a smaller number of screens and having an adult rating the movie has still managed to gross $55 million at the North American box office making back its $50 million budget even before opening in other territories. Its success is well deserved.
Sweeney Todd is a macabre treat from start to finish. Opening with Todd’s return at night by boat towards our capital, it rarely gets any lighter, in tone or in contrast. There are no good people in Burton / Sondheim’s vision all ending up a victim to someone else eventually whether it be the caged daughter to Rickman’s judge or those that frequent Todd’s barbershop. An undercurrent of dark humour ensures that there is a contrast the barbaric events unfolding onscreen.
The camera work, courtesy of Daruisz Wolski, drains the world of colour allowing only the bursts of red blood and the interior of the bake house to stand out so vividly to the pale and bleached visage of Todd and his surroundings. It is hard to think of another director that could have delivered such an adaptation to the big screen. This reviewer can’t wait to watch it and enjoy it again.
A friend of mine protested that the film had too many songs, which given that the movie is an adaptation of a Broadway musical is akin to seeing a comedy and complaining that it made you laugh too much. Admittedly I had some doubts when Mrs. Lovett kicks off singing about her pies towards the start, but everything else works like a dream. There is normally always a moment within a musical whether seen either in the theatre or on stage where the singing begins to wear thin and one starts clock watching desperate for the end. That doesn’t happen here. But then not many musicals dish out slashed necks and crushed skulls along with the lyrical stuff. And for a film fan who relishes both horror and the musical big screen treats don’t get much richer.