A dark and sinister Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp and a wide-eyed leading lady. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Twice, in fact. But the similarities with two of their earlier collaborations: ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’, pretty much end there.
For starters, Sweeney Todd is a musical, albeit a rather unconventional and gloriously bloody one. The film is based on the infamous tale of London barber-cum-serial killer Benjamin Barker. Upon returning to his Fleet Street flat above Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop after fifteen years in unwarranted exile, Barker assumes the name Sweeney Todd and swears revenge on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the man responsible for deporting Todd and robbing him of his wife and daughter.
When Todd learns that Turpin publicly raped his wife – who subsequently poisons herself – and has adopted his daughter as his ward, he surreptitiously decides to start cutting the throats of his unsuspecting customers. He then donates their bodies to Mrs. Lovett, providing the ingredients for her much-loved meat pies. Well, we all grieve differently, don’t we?
With any Tim Burton movie you’re almost guaranteed spectacular production design, fantastic costumes and a dramatic, soaring musical score – and Sweeney Todd is no exception. The recreation of Victorian London and its eerily-lit cobbled streets is reminiscent of another Depp film, the Hughes brothers’ 2001 Jack the Ripper flick ‘From Hell’. What comes as a pleasant surprise however are the impressive vocal performances by the movie’s cast – particularly Depp, who delivers Stephen Sondheim’s wickedly playful lyrics with panache.
As with his 1999 ghost story ‘Sleepy Hollow’, Burton favours a predominantly British supporting cast for Sweeney Todd. The film showcases an abundance of thespian talent including Bonham Carter, Rickman, and Timothy Spall. Even the Prime Minister from ‘Little Britain’ (Anthony Head) turns up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. There is also a brief but delightful appearance by Sacha Baron Cohen as rival barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli. I’m loath to admit that I unwittingly scoured Pirelli’s flamboyant Italian banter for traces of Borat, but Baron Cohen is a master of accents and not a hint of the inept Kazak reporter can be heard.
It’s Depp however, who truly shines (doesn’t he always?) – his performance is nothing short of magnificent and fully deserving of its Best Actor Oscar nod.
Ignore any reservations you may have about Sweeney Todd and go see it for what it is – a highly entertaining, visually stunning and magnificently gory two-hour musical massacre.
I knew it – it is possible to write a review of a Tim Burton movie without once using the word ‘gothic’. Oh, bugger.