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SWEENEY TODD:

THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2007)


After years of speculation, Burton finally chose to direct a big screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed musical. Sweeney Todd had been a popular legend for years (dating back to 1834), but the stage musical quickly became the most famous version of the story. Burton himself said it was his favourite musical.

Once again shooting with a mostly English cast and crew, the film attracted early criticism for choosing non-professional singers for an operatic musical. Johnny Depp admitted he had never sung before, and no one thought to test him before he was signed on. Laura Michelle Kelly (the beggar woman) was practically the only cast member who was professionally trained.

The film was shot mostly on real sets, though green screen was used for some locations, such as the Old Bailey. The production had to be closed down for two weeks when Depp's daughter became sick. This loss of time resulted in some new musical numbers being cut, including what would have been a role for Christopher Lee.

Despite the doubters, Sweeney Todd turned out to be one of the best screen musicals of recent years, and probably Tim Burton's best film since Ed Wood. Those familiar with the stage production may miss some of the songs, but Burton and his screenwriter wisely made the plot more streamlined, while still keeping it a faithful adaptation. Sondheim even wrote some new lyrics to better fit the movie.

Following a slightly darkened studio logo, the opening computer generated credits are a little too Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for my taste (though the instrumental version of the Ballad of Sweeney Todd works well). But as soon as Sweeney and Anthony arrive in the cesspool of London, the film really starts to work its magic. It takes its time to get to the killings, but that lets us get to know the characters. When Todd first tries Mrs. Lovett's broth, Depp makes a noise like Edward Scissorhands after he drinks "lemonade".

When the murders do come they're treated as wonderfully twisted Grand Guignol, with more blood spraying than even in Sleepy Hollow. Todd becomes more hopeless as the story progresses, rejecting even what little happiness he might have with Mrs. Lovett.

The ending is abrupt yet entirely appropriate for what is essentially a dark tragedy (though with lots of Burton's trademark macabre humour, of course). The final dance of death between Mr. T and Mrs. Lovett is poetic, and the final shot of Todd as his blood spreads across his wife and the floor is strangely beautiful. There is barely a hint of a happy ending for any of the characters, even those that survive.

The cast is uniformly great. Johnny Depp overcomes any doubts and really does a good job both with his acting and singing (his voice reminds one of David Bowie). He did mime his whistling, though. His Sweeney is more introspective than the stage version, and retains his humanity even as his behavior becomes more monstrous as the film progresses (in a memorable sequence he dumps countless dead bodies from his barber chair only to spare one man who brought his wife and child with him).

Even better is Helana Bonham Carter. She has a lovely voice and brings out the tragic side of Mrs. Lovett more so than I felt in the stage version. Sondheim reportedly saw her as a maternal figure, but Carter plays up the sex appeal between her and Mr. T. The "By the Sea" sequence where she imagines herself living on a colorful seafront with Sweeney is particularly wonderful, especially his morose reaction to her sunny disposition.

Alan Rickman is great as always, playing the despicable Judge Turpin (who doesn't even recognise the man whose life he destroyed). Sacha Baron Cohen is hilarious in the small but important role of Pirelli, and his fate is one of the more shocking in the film. It's fun to see him use his real accent for once when it's revealed his Italian persona is a fraud.

Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are fine in the admittedly rather wet roles of Anthony and Johanna. Their songs are reminiscent of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Ed Sanders plays the young Toby and gives an impressive performance for his age ("Not While I'm Around" is a lovely song). And Tony Head (Giles from Buffy) appears uncredited in the film for all of five seconds!

The music is of course a highlight of the film, with Sondheim's more unmelodic songs toned down. The songs really bring out the emotions of the characters, and there's even a strange kinship between Todd and Judge Turpin when the mortal enemies sing their duet.

Visually the film is near perfect, with the blood given a strangely beautiful quality, especially in the final scene. Stephen Sondheim's music fits perfectly with Burton's images (or should that be the other way around?). It's really an intimate screen musical, with no big dance numbers and most of the songs shot with closeups of the actors.

The film comments on various aspects of society, from the mistreatment of the lower classes (in one scene Judge Turpin sentences a young boy to hang) to the ethics of eating meat, but mostly it's a dark yet beautiful "scarytale" with tunes that are sure to get stuck in your head.

The film was a modest hit, despite never being given a full release by the studio. Critics were kind to the film, and in fact one of the few complaints was that the film wasn't marketted as a musical. Burton was once again ignored by the Oscars for this film, but the director has shown pretenders like Joel Schumacher and Chris Columbus how you do a bloody good movie musical!

Some have claimed the director's films have softened in recent years, and it is apparent that’s he no longer the angst-ridden young man who poured his heart into the damaged characters in Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. However, Burton himself doesn't feel the need to lighten his films now that he's a father, stating humorously in the latest edition of the book Burton on Burton that, "I feel more inclined to make a horror movie or a porno movie . . ."

Burton would follow Sweeney Todd with his most successful film yet, but one that would split fans and critics down the middle.

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