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Published January 29th, 2008 | by Mike Barnard

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Review

Classification: 18 Director: Tim Burton Rating: 4/5

A grotty Victorian London is perfect for Tim Burton’s gothic visions and with his favourite muse Johnny Depp alongside wife Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an irresistible set up. Based on the Broadway musical, it tells the story of the exiled Benjamin Barber who is sent away from the capital for a crime he did not commit by the wicked Judge Turpin (Rickman) so the man of the law can get his hands on Barber’s wife. With the help of sailor Anthony Hope (Bower), Barber returns to London as Sweeney Todd to discover his wife is dead and daughter Johanna (Wisener) is in the care of Turpin. Hell bent on revenge he teams up with pie maker Mrs Lovett (Carter) and together they plot to kill the corrupt Turpin and his cohort Beadle Bamford (Spall). Setting up a murderous barber’s chair and using dead customers as meat for Mrs Lovett’s pies to make money, Todd gives London nobodies the closet shaves they’ll ever receive while plotting his revenge.

Still sounding a lot like Captain Jack Sparrow, but looking more akin to Edward Scissorhands, Depp puts in another immersive performance worthy of his third Oscar nomination. Depp and Carter make an ideal odd couple and play off each other’s dreary characters, creating an enchanting centre to the movie as they sing their lines to each other. This is no musical with intrusive showstopping dance routines like those in Hairspray or Chicago – the Sweeney Todd songs coincide with the action to accompany the narrative rather than impede its progress. It can be a little odd or forced at times, particularly Alan Rickman’s stilted efforts, but it livens up what could otherwise have been an achingly slow dramatisation.

When Todd first picks up his silver-handled cut throat razors, he seeks to prove his skills so he can tempt Turpin into his barber’s chair. In doing so, he faces off against Sacha Baron Cohen’s rival barber Adolfo Pirelli in one of the highlights to the movie. Todd interrupts Pirelli’s street show to challenge him to a “shave-off”, bringing with it the amusing one-upmanship banter you would expect from rivals trying to impress a live audience. Cohen’s expressive style compliments Depp’s deadpan delivery perfectly and, although Cohen features in only two scenes, both are real treats. Pirelli’s demise comes at the blade of Todd after the Italian reveals he is aware Sweeney is really Benjamin Barber and attempts to blackmail him. Disposing of the body provides the spark for the poverty-stricken Todd and Mrs Lovett to kill strangers and use their meat in pies, kick-starting a bloody montage as necks are sliced and bodies despatched to land on their head in a cellar via a motorised barber’s chair and trap door. It’s one of those moments when seeing a musical on film can be more rewarding with cutting between the two leads singing and the on-screen action become a more complex mix than is possible on stage.

Dark, dank and ultimately depressing despite all the music, Sweeney Todd is unmistakably a Burton film. His love of all things weird and twisted are on show from the slightly bizarre relationship between Todd and Mrs Lovett to Timothy Spall’s rodent-like performance as Bamford. The high production values give even the dirtiest moments a visual flair and the on-screen fashion is dashing and beautiful – it’s no surprise the art direction and costume design has been given Oscar nods along with the star. Sweeney Todd has the hallmark of a labour of love for Burton, Depp and Carter: it’s a delightfully bloody trip to a grimy, but melodic, Victorian London.

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