Saturday 12 January 2008


Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
who never thereafter were heard of again.
He trod a path that few have trod
did Sweeney Todd
the demon barber of Fleet Street.

He kept a shop in London town
of fancy clients and good renown
and what if none of their souls were saved,
they went to their maker impeccably shaved
by Sweeney,
by Sweeney Todd
the 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.


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.

Helena Bonham 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.

Alan Rickman 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!



Andy Latham said...

Happy New Year Brian!

I saw the trailer for this last night for the first time and wondered if it was worth seeing. I love Tim Burton's creations and so assumed it probably would be worth a visit to the cinema, but thanks to your review, I am now actually excited to see it!

Laurie Mann said...

I saw the movie a couple of weeks back and enjoyed it. Even though Johnny Depp is a smaller man with a much smaller voice than Len Cariou, he was so creepy that he worked very well.

I'm mildly critical of Bonham-Carter's singing however. Her voice was too sweet and too plain. Angela Lansbury's over-the-top accent and nasal tone always nailed Mrs. Lovett for me.

I also agree with you completely on the restraint Alan Rickman showed in interpreting his role. It was fine for most of the actors to be weird. He had to seem very "normal" most of the time.

Brian Sibley said...

Andy - Oh, gawd! I hope you like it!

Laurie - I agree that Bonham Carter's voice is too ordinary; the problem's not that she isn't a singer, but that there is no singularity to her vocal performance and - a problem - for all of the cast: Sondheim's lyrics are often tortuously tongue-twisting and quite a few of the best lines in the songs were simply lost. But I seriously doubt if the film could have achieved the same intense and shocking terror if the score had been sung with the brilliance of Cariou and Lansbury.

Laurie Mann said...

While you were on "holiday vacation," I posted a question about Stingiest Man in Town (which, thanks to your reminder, I got for Christmas). Was that the first major musical version of A Christmas Carol? I can't think of a movie musical or TV special version that predates it, though I can remember a few after it.

Unknown said...

Glad it's good.

And it sounds like you didn't get too many of the "I'm a xxxx. My name is xxxxx and I do xxxx and this is really all about me. (long prologue about what person's amateur dramatics group/story writing group/student film group do cut). Anyway, I guess I'm supposed to ask a question now. So here it is"

Look forward to seeing the Q&A as an extra on the British shiny disc version, as the NFT poorly-shot interviews always seem to be included on DVDs these days.

Watched "The Walker" on DVD a couple of nights ago and it included the NFT Q&A, which started with two or three shots of people walking in front of the camera completely blocking any stage view BEFORE the interview actually started. Haven't these people heard of trimming/editing shot footage? It's quite staggering in terms of incompetence, but then one shouldn't expect more should one? It's only the National Film Theatre and British Film Institute, after all!

SharonM said...

Thanks for the preview, Brian, it certainly makes me want to go and see the film, despite the fact that I tend to be squeamish.
But then Johnny Depp can make you forget about everything else that is going on, even without his little beard.

Boll Weavil said...

Disappointed with Depp of late.He made a right pigs ear of 'The Libertine'and he really ought to make some reparation for 3'Pirates' films so may wait for it to come on TV...

Suzanne said...

I'm afraid I skipped through most of your commentary about the film... I want to keep the surprise complete for when I go to see the film. Which apparently here doesn't come out until late February.
Really looking forward to it - I love Tim Burton's work and of course anything (well almost!) with Johnny Depp in it!

Brian Sibley said...

MICHAEL G comments...

I enjoyed your piece on 'Sweeny Todd'.

I saw it a few weeks ago and was a bit disappointed by the changes and limitations of the singers.

I found it very hard to even understand what they were saying when singing, and missed Angela Lansbury's take on Mrs. Lovett. I was fortunate to see the show in LA when they went on Tour - with George Hearn as Todd some 20+ years ago!

It is so difficult to translate from one medium to another, and I thought it not as successful as I had hoped.

Brian Sibley said...

IAN - No, we didn't get much of that, though every questioner, I think, managed to begin their question (or, more often, COMMENT!) by contriving to sound as if they were one of Mr Burton's closest friends - and, who knows, maybe they were!

SUZANNE - Sorry! The film doesn't open in the UK until next week, so I should have put a * SPOILERS ALERT * on this post - and have belatedly done so...

MICHAEL - I understand your reactions and as I commented to Laurie, I also had difficulty with hearing some of the lyrics especially those sung by HBC (which is never a problem with Miss Lansbury); but the fact that the film got made and survived the Hollywood process is something of a miracle (the first Burton film NOT to be screen-tested before release) and the media of theatre and cinema, whilst related, are so different...

I bet people who saw Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in 'Camelot' on Broadway groaned at Richard Harris' and Vanessa Redgrave's film version; and - now here's a thought - maybe devotees of Mary Martin's stage portrayal of Maria in 'The Sound of Music' shook their heads in disappointment when they saw Miss Andrews singing 'Do-Re-Mi' on the big screen!

Brian Sibley said...

LAURIE - On 'The Stingiest Man in Town'....

This musical version (with Basil Rathbone as Scrooge) televised live as part of The Alcoa Hour in 1956 was, in fact, the SECOND musical version of 'A Christmas Carol'.

Two years earlier, 1954, a filmed epsiode of The Shower of Stars presented Fredric March as Scrooge (and Basil Rathbone as the Ghost of Jacob Marley) in a musical version of 'A Christmas Carol' with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and music by Bernard Herrmann. This was also the first version of the story to be filmed in colour and won Fredric March an Emmy nomination.

Maybe that's where someone got the idea of subsequently casting Rathbone in the role of Scrooge.

As I think you know, the songs from 'The Stingiest Man in Town' were later used in an animated version of the story (1978) from Rankin-Bass with Walter Matthau as Scrooge.

Phil said...

Brian, Happy New Year - and good to see your blog back in action.

This isn't really anything to do with anything (although the thought was prompted by the Sweeney Todd images you posted), but:

Have you see the work of this sculptor:

Brian Sibley said...

PHIL - Thanks! These sculptures looks amazing... And may well get blogged about in the not too distant future!!

(PS: Happy New Year to you, too! And apologies for not having acknowledged your last Bradbury communication! There are now so many new limited edition Ray books on offer that my bank balance has gone into seizure!!)

Anonymous said...

"penile servitude" ???

Brian Sibley said...

Ooops!! LOL! That's what comes of returning from holiday to 4000 items of spam...

Forgive me, Anon, if I leave your comment, but hastily correct 'penile' to 'penal'!

Diva of Deception said...

Just found out that you are blogging again - thought you'd stopped for longer than this. Hurrah!

Thanks for the insight into Sweeney Todd - won't be seeing the movie because of all the gore but have fond memories of the stage show.