Film & DVD Review: Sweeney Todd

Certification:UK:18 / USA:R / Singapore:M18 / Finland:K-18 / South Korea:18 / Australia:MA / Canada:18A (British Columbia) / Ireland:16

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

As Tim Burton said at the London Press Conference when we first see Benjamin Barker (who renames himself Sweeney Todd) he is already ‘dead’. The only thing keeping him moving is hatred and a thirst for revenge. He has returned from spending 15 years in a harsh penal colony. Sent there unjustly by Judge Turpin (Rickman) who wants to steal his wife. Barker, the loving Father and Husband is no more, what returns to 19th century London is a man without compassion bent on exacting a gruesome retribution.

This obsession makes him oblivious to everything else around him, of any hope, of any exploration of alternate courses of action. Mrs Lovett may sing of her dreams of the life Sweeney, her and Toby could have By the Sea but Todd is possessed by a darker vision. As Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Lovett) says:-

“she’s always been in love with Sweeney. And I don’t think he gives two hoots about Mrs. Lovett. He’s so obsessed with avenging his wife’s death.”

One of the things which makes Sweeney Todd so fascinating is the production-line like method of his killing. The slitting of the throat in a barber chair which drops the victim through a trap-door on their head in the basement below. There to be butchered and their meat to be made into pies for Mrs. Lovett to sell. The song A Little Priest which speaks of ‘man devouring man’ sums up their view that society outside is little different.

Anyone who has seen Sondheims’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street either in 1979 or when revived on Broadway on 1989 and 2005 would find it an unlikely translation to the big-screen. Adapting a three-hour stage musical into a two-hour movie was never going to be easy. Add to that the fact that only one of the Stars could be described as a professional singer and you can appreciate the challenge.

Whilst the film focuses on Sweeney and Lovett this is an ensemble cast. Pirelli a rival barber is played with gusto by Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford makes a convincing, oily villain. The younger members of the cast are impressive: Jayne Wisener as Johanna, Ed Sanders as Toby and Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony Hope.

The ‘unseen character’ is of course Sondheim’s music. The story is told largely through music and lyric, not dialogue. Sondheim says he was inspired by a film score of ‘ Hangover Square by Bernard Hermann:-

“It’s a flamboyant Edwardian melodrama about a composer who goes crazy when he hears a certain sound and goes out and murders the nearest beautiful girl. I remember just loving that score, and I thought it would really be fun to scare an audience and see if you could do it while people are singing.”

This film delivers. It is great to watch though most of it is in a kind of black and white. The music is emotionally convincing. The sets are awesome.

Social comment is present in the lyric but not stressed in the film which focuses more on the revenge motive of the central character. In my mind I kept wondering what a Tim Burton film of Threepenny Opera with Depp as Mack the Knife would be like! Sadly Depp says he will not sing on film again so perhaps we will never know. Some of us can only dream of such a thing.

Main cast and credits

Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett) Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin) Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford) Sacha Baron Cohen (Signor Adolfo Pirelli) Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope) Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy/Beggar Woman) Jayne Wisener (Johanna) Ed Sanders (Toby)

Directed by Tim Burton

Writing credits

John Logan (screenplay) Stephen Sondheim (musical) and Hugh Wheeler (musical) Christopher Bond (musical adaptation)

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