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Published:January 27th, 2008 10:56 EST
Film Review:  'A Close Shave For The Upper Crust' (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)

Film Review: 'A Close Shave For The Upper Crust' (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)

By Glenn James

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film Of Stephen Sondheim’s Musical 

(120 Minutes, General Release 25th January 2008) 

If you fancy Pie for dinner I really would recommend waiting till another day before seeing this is Grand-Guignol masterpiece.  A stunning melodramatic tragedy, made with an achingly loving eye to the old Hammer movies, this film will raise some very uncomfortable questions in your mind about the contents of the steak and Kidney sitting innocently on your plate, and is not a film for the squeamish.  This is probably the film of Tim Burtons career, but its “hero” is no gentle Edward Sissorhands, driven Ed Wood, or nervous Ichabod Crane trying to win an otherwordly heroine.   

No sensitive and quirky Burton hero inhabits the dark centre of this pitch black comedy, and it might come as rather a shock to fans familiar with his work.  Depp’s Sweeney, although a cripplingly tragic character with whose history you can all too easily sympathise, is a hollow shell of a man, inhabited by an abyss filled with a murderous thirst for revenge.  For those unfamiliar with Stephen Sondheim’s musical, which Burton has adapted here for the big screen, it is virtually “Hannibal” with a score, filled with themes of murder and cannibalism which are not for the faint hearted, and will probably compel men in the audience to stick to an electric razor for life. 

Sondheim’s musical debuted in 1979, and the composer is on record as having said that he wanted to write something like a horror film, as he wanted to see if he could frighten people. It’s chillingly effective, as rather than a vampire or a werewolf which we can safely dismiss as fiction or fairytale, we have a cracked maniac with a cut throat razor in each hand and a grudge against all mankind.   

Adapted from Christopher Bonds play of 1973, the musical gives Todd a tragic history and cause for his mania.  Unjustly transported to Australia by evil Judge Turpin, (played with chilling lasciviousness by Alan Rickman), Todd is framed so that Turpin can get his lustful hands on his beautiful wife, Lucy.  With her husband safely out of the way, the erstwhile jurist then rapes her, and then casts her onto the street, where she takes poison.  Their daughter is adopted as the judge’s ward. 

Fifteen years later the ghoul her husband has become returns to London, raging for revenge. He returns to his old Barbers over widow Lovett’s Pie Shop, where his besotted neighbour (rather unfortunately) reunites Todd with his beloved Stirling silver cut-throat razors.  Here he plots to get his hands on the Judge, but things take an unexpected turn when he is forced to kill a rival barber, Senior Pirelli (a wonderful cape twirling Sacha Baron Cohen) who is threatening to expose his real identity.  

As the two stand looking at the dead body and wondering how to get rid of it, Widow Lovett happens to remark what a waste it is, especially considering the price of meat…  Sweeney is fast on the uptake, and a new age begins in the history of 19th century cuisine, as they cheerfully sing a duet about Lawyer Pies, Priest Pies, and so forth, according to the passers by they can see outside…..  This is about as gleefully black as the humour can get, with Depp and Helena Bonham Carter waltzing together with a cleaver and a rolling pin… 

But this movie is at heart a tragedy, and the ending is as vengefully Old Testament as anything I have ever seen on film. After a brief gastronomic boom, the two go to their doom in blood and thunder style, in a way you won’t forget, but will rather wish you could. 

Oh yes, blood.  There’s rather a lot of it, actually.  Tim Burton does not mess about in the gore department. The blood is all an operatic fire-engine red, in the great Hammer tradition of what Christopher Lee called “Kensington Gore”, and thus helps to tone down the series of horrendous deaths.   But visually this film is a loving homage to Hammer Horror movies, as Todd and his associates move through a London wreathed in chimney smoke in virtual black and white, with moonlight on rain washed cobbles. An out and out treat for the eyes of a horror fan, and the opening sequence where Todd’s ship sails up the Thames is stunningly beautiful.  

The cast are fantastic.  Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter have a terrific charisma as the central anti-heroes, with her remaining dementedly unaware of the depths of his mania, and not realising that their relationship has been sheer parallel processing on his part until its far too late.  They look wonderful together, with his marlin streak of white in his hair, and her Panda eye-makeup, in a way which is so glamorous that it will be imitated at Goth weddings for years to come.  Both sing extremely well, with Depp actually sounding like David Bowie, and Carter has never been better.  Opposing them is the wonderfully demonic duo of Alan Rickman’s Judge and Timmothy Spall’s Beadle, supposedly on the side of the angels, but in truth every bit as bad as Todd and Lovett.  Both get their come uppance in blood curdling style, as does Coens truly fantastic Pirelli. 

This is Burtons Masterpiece, as it’s hard to see how he can top it.  He has adapted Sondheim’s musical into a film with great economy and visual panache, with enormous style and spot on casting.   

Sweeney Todd started life in Thomas Preskett Prests Penny Dreadful story “The String of Pearls” in 1846, and alongside adaptation to the stage in 1847 by George Dibden Pitt, he became an Urban Legend. As venerable an English Demon as Dracula or Frankenstein’s creature, the Barber has returned to the screen with a vengeance.  

Nowadays we forget that the Victorians were a blood thirsty lot, who enjoyed a good horror story as much as any modern Zombie-flick fan, or reader of Thomas Harris. But on a personal note, I reviewed “Hannibal” in 2001, and remember everyone being horrified with the films graphic violence and cannibalistic themes, with the conclusion of our studio debate being that if it were not a movie of a best selling novel it would never have been made as a mainstream film.  But “Hannibal” changed the notion of what was permissible in the multiplexes, and as a result cleared the way for its linear descendant, in “Sweeney Todd”.  

The film is being lauded with award nominations and rave reviews, and as Todd cuts a swathe through the cinemas of the world in an age of GM foods, and worries over Bird Flu and Foot and Mouth scares, his culinary enterprise with Widow Lovett makes very uncomfortable viewing.  A thought provoking a satire as much as it is a tragedy, especially considering the popularity of the widow’s meals…