Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.His skin was pale and his eye was odd.He shaved the faces of gentlemenwho never thereafter were heard of again.He trod a path that few have troddid Sweeney Toddthe demon barber of Fleet Street.He kept a shop in London townof fancy clients and good renownand what if none of their souls were saved
,they went to their maker impeccably shavedby Sweeney,by Sweeney Toddthe demon barber of Fleet Street.
It's thirty years since that thrusting, compelling opening chorus of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
screamed its way onto the Broadway stage and took the theatrical musical world by storm.
The young Tim Burton saw that show - several times in one week, he says - falling in love with Sondheim's amoral morality-tale and beginning what was to be a long-harboured dream of putting the show onto film, even creating occasional, Burton's-eye views of how the characters might look in his sketchbooks.
And now, that dream - or nightmare
- has become a reality.
** SPOILERS ALERT **
We must begin with a word of warning: if you are a devotee of the show you should know straight away that 'The Ballad of Sweeney Todd' - the signature narrative device, quoted above, that skewers its way through Sondheim's music and lyrics and pins the dark saga of the wronged and vengeful barber to it's melodramatic origins - has not found its way into Tim Burton's film version.
True, the intention of screenwriter John Logan was that the ballad was to have been performed by chorus of ghostly narrators played by Christopher Lee, Peter Bowles
, Anthony Head (who can still be glimpsed in the final 'cut') and others; but, according to Tim Burton at a Q & A session following last night's preview screening at london's
National Film Theatre, the decision was finally taken that what is an overtly theatrical device didn't actually assist the cinematic telling of the tale.
And he is very probably right. Following the stunningly evocative opening titles (if you've not seen them, you can do so here
) the story doesn't so much explode on the eye and ear as insinuate its way into your subconscious, as the ship bringing Todd - the barber sentenced to fifteen years of penal servitude in Australia for a crime he didn't commit - slips down the Thames at night, under Tower Bridge and into dock in, what remains throughout the film, a London of mist-wreathed buildings, rain-lashed streets and brooding, leaden, smoke-filled skies.
As a devotee of Sondheim and this show in particular, I didn't so much miss the dropped numbers as regretted the way in which some of those which survived had been shaved to within an inch of their musical lives. However, with a cast of non-professional singers (and a legendarily complex score) Burton keeps the demands of the musical story and those of the cinematic experience finely balanced."Yes, yes!"
you are saying. "Enough of all that!
What about Johnny Depp
?" Well, of course, Mr Depp
can do no wrong and he is simply magnificent as Todd: a small, slightly-built, sinewy ghost of a man with pale skin, shadowed eye sockets and a great wave of white coursing through a mane of tousled black hair. There's none of the operatic stature of many of the singers who've played Todd on stage, but Depp's
compact frame quivers with restless, nervous energy and brooding, calculating menace that was hinted at in the film's trailer
and which he now delivers in full cold- and red-bloodied style.Depp's
Todd is a truly terrible twin of Edward Scissorhands
(the role he first played for Burton): robbed of every shred of innocence and denuded of all naivety and with razors instead of scissors as the fearful extensions to his arms.
The actor's London accent is a couple of stops down from that employed by Jack Sparrow, but the saucy glint with which everyone's
favourite pirate of the Caribbean eyes up the world is now a chilling, gimlet stare that signifies the obsessive mind bent on mad deeds.
Carter's Mrs Lovatt
takes a bit more getting used to: sexier but less comically attuned than Angela Lansbury
, who so powerfully defined the role in the opening production, the character has lost - along with the broad ludicrousness of the way Sondheim wrote the part - the opportunity to leaven the horror and nudge us in the ribs from time to time to remind us that this really is just a penny-dreadful story conjured up to make our blood run cold.Bonham
Carter's Mrs Lovatt
(maker of "the worst pies in London") is now a more brutal compatriot to Todd: prepared to tolerate, and cash-in on, his gory career in order to satisfy her unrequited love for this man who "served a dark and a vengeful god".
Indeed, much of the black humour of the original show has been whittled away leaving what unsettling laughs there are to Timothy Spall
as the oily, unctuous Beadle Bamford
and wonderfully preposterous Sacha Baron Cohen who conjures a new phony identity for himself (not entirely unrelated to Borat
and Ali G) as rival barber - and Todd's first victim - Signor Adolfo Pirelli
The young lovers, Joanna (Todd's daughter) and Anthony (the barber's sailing companion from Australia) are portrayed by child-like Jayne Wisener
and androgynous Jamie Campbell Bower, while Todd's maddened wife is played by former Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly. Toby, the workhouse boy who is 'adopted' by Mrs Lovatt
is brilliantly acted and sung by Ed Sanders, a young newcomer who would have been a credit to Fagin's den.
as Todd's nemesis, Judge Turpin, wisely resists every temptation to ham up the role of villain and, in so doing, brings genuine menace to the character and points Sondheim's moral that it is not always easy to identify the true
monsters in the horror stories of life.
If Judge Turpin is the ruination of the Todd's fortunes (first banishing the barber to Australia on trumped-up charges, then raping his wife and driving her to attempted suicide and madness, before finally lusting after the young daughter whom he has made his ward) then he is also the motive - justification, even - for the avenging (and unrelenting) gore-fest that is the second half of the film and which has earned it an 'R' rating in the USA.
The terrible and brutal ritualism of the escalating scenes of savagery assault the eye and bombard the senses until the mood of grand guignol
erupts in an arterial geyser of theatrically vermilion blood, spattered across the desaturated - almost monochromatic - world devised by Burton, his designer, Date Feretti
, and the director of photography, Dariusz Wolski
The visceral horror of the film - along with its genre-status as a musical - must have given the movie moguls responsible for the entire enterprise many a sleepless night. If it also robs its audiences of some restful hours then it is a testament to Burton's single-minded pursuit of the darkly cynical metaphor underlying Sondheim's show: that just as the good folk of London flock to Mrs Lovatt's
shop to eat her new, improved recipe pies, all humanity are, in some degree, cannibals feeding of others less fortunate than themselves.
There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed...
There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and it's filled with people who are filled with shit!
And the vermin of the world inhabit it!
Whilst such anger-filled lyrics survive the story's transition to the screen, much of the dialogue in Hugh Wheeler's original book has been eliminated to give the movie a feeling of what Tim Burton describes as "a silent film with music": a feeling - and a look
- that has clearly been inspired by those great black-and-white horror classics peopled by actors such as Lone Chaney, Boris Karloff and Peter Lore who understood the need for a demon to have - however deformed or tortured - a heart...
Trivia Point: Note Big Ben seen through the window on the poster
(but not in the film) in order to reinforce the London connection!
A reviewer of the original stage production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
, wrote: "There is more of artistic energy, creative personality and plain excitement in Sweeney Todd
... than in a dozen average musicals."
That Tim Burton should now have captured so much of that energy, personality and excitement on film with such devastating, pulse-racing, heart-wrenching panache is practically beyond praise.
It is, quite simply, bloody brilliant!