Sweeney Todd

UK release date: 25 January 2008

cast list

Johnny Depp
Helena Bonham-Carter
Sacha Baron Cohen
Alan Rickman
Timothy Spall

directed by
Tim Burton
With his track record, Tim Burton would seem to be the perfect director for Stephen Sondheims macabre and witty slice of Grand Guignol and his film version of Sweeney Todd certainly delivers on the visual front. He evokes a wonderfully murky Victorian underworld reflected in the mind of a serial killer bent on revenge for past wrongs. Aurally, it leaves much to be desired, though, with vocal performances that will satisfy only the least discerning of cinemagoers.

Many of the songs come across as surprisingly humourless. Mrs Lovetts Worst Pies in London lacks colour, the Pirelli shaving contest is dull and A Little Priest, one of the funniest songs ever written, barely raises a smile. Burton has gone for the dark devilish side of the work without relishing the humour that Sondheim provides in spadefuls.

Burtons girlfriend Helen Bonham-Carter brings nothing to the role of Sweeneys sidekick, the culinarily-challenged Mrs Lovett, that a much better singer and actress wouldnt, although Johnny Depps customary charisma and brooding weirdness means he almost gets away with singing thats well short of acceptable. Sacha Baron Cohen, no stranger to outrageous flamboyance, is uncharacteristically muted as the showman blackmailer Pirelli, destined to become the first of many victims of Sweeneys razor.

The best singing comes from Jamie Campbell Bowers otherwise soppy Anthony, the ingenuous sailor who falls for the caged-up Johanna (a cutesy-doll Jayne Wisener) and casting of these parts to age is a strength. Similarly having the boy Toby played by, well, a boy (likeable Edward Sanders) makes a refreshing change from the mature cavortings of older actors were used to seeing in the theatre.

With clever re-structuring, the story is re-told in just two hours. One of the greatest strengths of Sondheims original lyrics and Hugh Wheelers book was the way they set Sweeneys personal journey against the social struggle of an underclass swallowed up by a vicious society. It gave added dimensions to the folk tale of man devouring man, but here that hardly registers. Instead Burton has gone for a blood and thunder horror story, with Sweeney as victim yes, but as an isolated and individualistic figure.

Be warned, this is a very gory film, with lashings of blood and a truly horrific fate for Mrs Lovett. Perhaps the most startling piece of violence comes without spurting arteries, though, when Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman doing what he does so well), condemns a felon to hang without the inconvenience of knowing whether he was guilty or not.

Up to now, Sondheim hasnt been well-served by the film industry, the atrocious 1978 A Little Night Music, with Elizabeth Taylors unrivalled appalling singing, coming immediately to mind. What Burton does do with Sweeney Todd is give us a work that is a film in its own right, not a slavish adaptation of a stage show, and it should succeed in bringing one of the greatest masterpieces of musical theatre to a much wider audience.

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