Saturday 7 July 2018

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This gothic crime thriller cum musical has roots in Stephen Sondheim's 1979 Broadway and West End stage production for which he wrote music and lyrics and prior to that, a traditional gory tale banded around with no clearly defined origin. Odd that in this adaptation by Tim Burton, Sondheim wasn't even credited, even though his songs are used. Wonder how they got away with that. Wikipedia tells us that "Sweeney Todd is a fictional character who first appeared as the villain of the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls (1846–47). The tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama and London urban legend, and has been retold many times since. Claims that Sweeney Todd was a historical person are strongly disputed."

So for those who don't know, the story is set in 1846 and centred around London barber Benjamin Barker who, 15 years earlier had been falsely accused of a crime so that powerful Judge Turpin could get him out of the way and swoop in on his beautiful wife Lucy, to have for himself. Barker finds his way back to London, changes his name to Todd and vows revenge on the Judge. He bumps into Mrs Lovett, who is now running a pie shop in his previous premises in Fleet Street. Business is bad for her so she hatches a plan to generate her own meat for pies by getting Todd to bump people off in his barber's chair and hack them up! This they do, as it fits in with his revenge plan, things get complicated and out of hand, secrets from the past come out and all mayhem ensues until the grizzly finale!

Tim Burton (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Alice in Wonderland, Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Beetlejuice), with many of his usual entourage, takes all this to the big screen with his usual sumptuous flair. The main players are depicted by Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sleepy Hollow, The Ninth Gate, Edward Scissorhands) as Barker/Todd, Alan Rickman (Eye in the Sky, Harry Potter, Truly Madly Deeply, Die Hard) as Judge Turpin, Helena Bonham Carter (Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Planet of the Apes, Howards End, A Room with a View) as Mrs Lovett, Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, The King's Speech, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter) as Beadle Bamford and Sacha Baron Cohen (Brüno, Borat, Ali G) as Aldolfo Pirelli. There is some new talent brought in for their singing ability playing Anthony, Johanna, Lucy and Tobias but one of the strengths of the adaptation is that Burton insists on his cast, some of whom really can't sing, just getting on and doing their best anyway. And this really works, somehow, feeling like real people singing in the street and not the polished trained performances of people who happen to be the characters, who happen to have great voices!

As usual, Burton develops a dark and deliciously sinister theme with wonderful sets in dreary, dirty, poverty stricken and dour Victorian London. The camerawork is a delight to watch with interesting internals, street scenes and use of depth of field particularly to create atmosphere and a medium for dastardly deeds! It really is a brilliant piece of work with everyone involved excelling in what they do, even in the smallest parts, giving their all. Sacha Baron Cohen is such a delight in his role that he very nearly steals the whole show for himself! Bonham Carter and Depp have a usual level of connection and chemistry between them, making it all pull together nicely. The songs are well known in many circles of course and they are injected to add all the spice and enjoyment an audience could hope for. I know, I know, Tim Burton can do no wrong for this reviewer, but this really is highly recommended.

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