Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

2008 #30
Tim Burton | 112 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Sweeney ToddTim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate for the sixth time (as the DVD’s blurb is so keen to point out) for a film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of the classic tale of the titular barber who slaughters instead of shaves and sells the resultant meat to all of London in the pies of his accomplice, Mrs Lovett.

As with 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the announcement of Burton as director of Sweeney Todd was one of those “well, of course” moments, despite the vastly different audiences. And with Burton come Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, naturally. But whereas the eventual product of Charlie resulted in a “that’s that done then” feeling of the inevitable, Sweeney is more of an unknown quantity for me — I’m familiar with the basic story, of course, but not this particular version. It’s a dark tale, but told here in a heavily stylised manner — no gritty realism to be found (for that try the Ray Winstone TV movie), but instead there’s bold and striking performances, design, direction, and storytelling. One is tempted to call it “theatrical”, but the direction is anything but and the actors do much more than project for the benefit of the back row. It’s anti-naturalistic in all elements, which suits both the ghoulish and musical subject matters perfectly, but is consequently not to everyone’s taste.

As for the musical elements, Sweeney is done in an operatic style — the majority of dialogue is sung and the story is almost entirely told through these songs, rather than having a couple of numbers peppered throughout (quite how they managed to edit a trailer that was both comprehensible and light on song is near miraculous). Anyone who’s seen an Andrew Lloyd Webber production will be familiar with this way of doing things. Personally, I find it a more immersive style — everyone’s singing from the word go, not disconcertingly launching into song a little way in. The cast’s voices may not be perfect (and I’m far from a knowledgeable judge), but they do the job more than adequately. Rough moments almost add to the film’s style, and the cast’s acting abilities more than make up for them anyway. One casting oddity is Anthony Head, who turns up for a sole inconsequential line. He may not be a regular film actor, but surely he’s bigger (and certainly better) than a glorified extra? He’s not even listed in the end credits. I smell deleted scenes… (A bit of IMDb reading reveals I’m right. Sadly, these aren’t included on the DVD.)

The other striking element of Sweeney Todd is its look. London here is a dingy monochrome metropolis, interrupted only by fanciful fairytale-coloured fantasies like the song By the Sea, and, of course, gallons of vibrant spurting blood. Wisely held off until relatively late in the film, when the blood comes it is all the more shocking. And from that point it flows like wine — or, more accurately, squirts like a stamped-on ketchup bottle — in perfectly judged amounts: it gushes far more than you’d normally see but, because Burton never pushes it to the mad excess that Tarantino did in Kill Bill, it remains on the disturbing side of believable. The stylised theatricality of it almost makes you question the high classifications, but the underlying morals and sheer bloody volume ultimately justify them.

Yet there’s something missing from Sweeney Todd. I can’t work out what it is — perhaps the numerous numbers Burton cut or trimmed have unbalanced proceedings slightly, in some frustratingly ephemeral way? — but despite all this praise and only vague criticisms, I’m certain it’s a four-star film. A very solid four, to be sure, but it doesn’t achieve enough to pass higher.

4 out of 5

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is on Channel 4 tonight, Saturday 9th August 2014, at 11:10pm.

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