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SWEENEY TODD (article first published : 2008-02-28)

Since first being considered as a film project some 25 years ago, following its Broadway success with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed musical-thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street , has had a wide variety of performers attached to it.

William Hurt, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Steve Martin, Tim Curry, Kevin Kline, Warren Beatty ... all have been mentioned, at some time or other, as being certs to be the screen’s demon barber of Fleet Street.

And the last mentioned was Aussie Russell Crowe, who was to have been under the direction of Sam Mendes.

It’s Johnny Depp, however, who landed the part and he’s so embraced it, so made it his own, his performance has landed him an Oscar nomination. He’s really impressive, doing his own singing in a light, emotive baritone, but Helena Bonham-Carter - as pie-maker Mrs Lovett, a role for which Meryl Streep, Toni Colette and Emma Thompson were all considered - eclipses him. Like Depp, she’s white-pale with dark, deep-set eyes, a la silent-movie stars. She’s more striking than Depp, more fun to watch, more vocally impressive.

Director Tim Burton, however, stands on the highest podium. With a palette of browns, greys and blacks - and occasional slashes of red, of course - he has painted a dark, gloomy, morbid and fascinating London of the Jack the Ripper era to present his macabre tale of corruption, revenge, mass murder and cannibalism.

Of course, the film won’t be to everyone’s liking. Sondheim works are generally regarded as the thinking man’s musicals and the music, while clever and witty, is complex. There’s also a lot of it, in spite of nearly an hour being sliced off the three-hour stage production’s running time. But fans of the show – and of the unpredictable talent that is Burton - should be in their element.

The story of Sweeny Todd centre’s on a London barber (Depp) plotting revenge on evil Judge Turpin (ever-excellent Alan Rickman), who stole Todd's wife from him and had him exiled for a crime he didn’t commit. Fifteen years later, the barber returns with the name Sweeney Todd and reopens his barber shop above a pie shop run by Mrs Lovett (Bonham-Carter), who he secretly loves.

The two then cook up a dastardly plan - Todd, while trying to get Turpin behind his blade, will slit throats and dump bodies, down a chute, into Lovett’s kitchen. The result is that her now-chunky meat pies, once the worst in London, suddenly become the talk of the town.

A sideplot, building to a twist ending, involves Turpin keeping Todd’s teen daughter ((Jayne Wisener) a virtual prisoner while planning to marry her, and a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) trying to woo her. Supporting characters include a delightful Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame, as an Italian fop, Adolfo Pirelli, whom Todd challenges to a shaving duel.

Then there’s Timothy Spall, deliciously weaselly as Beadle Bamford, obnoxious right-hand man of evil Judge Turpin; and young Ed Sanders, who has a beautiful voice in the pivotal role of Tobas, a small boy who ends up working for Todd and Lovett.

If you like your musicals with razzle dazzle, stay away, If you seek something sinister, slick and stylish, this one’s for you. I loved it. Rating (9/10) – Billy Suter




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