When it’s on: Thursday, 10 May (11.15 pm)
And there’s me thinking that Sweeney Todd was a real person! He started out as a character in a penny dreadful called The String of Pearls (serialised in 1846-47), and quickly became the subject of stage plays. Over time, promoters hyped the story as a recounting of the facts, or at least based on real-life, and it’s always possible that Victorian London could very well have witnessed such monstrosities (one just has to read Dickens to tap into hints of the ghoulish goings on beneath the surface).
Various film versions followed before a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was given the green light. Once Tim Burton was attached to the project, the director’s usual muses – Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter – also got involved, with questions asked of what the film might amount to. Burton’s films had previously contained musical sequences but he’d never directed an out-and-out musical. Depp and Bonham Carter hadn’t sung professionally before. Fortunate then that the result was a bloody marvel.
It turns out, all misgivings aside, that Burton was the perfect choice to helm Sweeney Todd. Bringing his now traditional Gothic sensibility to the look of the film, the camera prowls along London’s inky streets, all shadows, swarthy characters and a den for dark deeds. Every corner suggests some awful menace. The brighter areas emerge as little better. The film’s patrician character, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), is corrupt. Years before, he set false charges against a barber named Benjamin Barker (Depp) because of his lust for his wife. Barker was duly sentenced to a life sentence of hard labour in Australia, but now he’s back, seeking revenge under his new identity of Sweeney Todd. Soon settling back into his old barber shop, with the help of Mrs Lovett (Bonham Carter), who sells ‘the worst pies in London’ from the store below, Tood is reunited with his chosen instruments of vengeance, his straight razors, and the quest for retribution begins.
The script for Sweeney Todd picks and chooses from Sondheim’s musical, honing in on the revenge narrative and making a bee-line for the gorier aspects of the story. The blood-letting, when it comes, is horribly real. Sweeney Todd earns its 18 Certificate, a risky decision on the part of the production that pays off because the gloves come off in terms of what it allows itself to show, which is just about everything. There must have been a conscious moment of decision at some point early in the film’s development – hey, this is a story about a murderer, whose victims are then baked into pies and everyone loves the pies – where they had to choose whether to treat the material lightly or give it the full gory treatment. They went for the latter. Good call.
A regular actor for Burton, Depp again underwent extensive make-up processes to transform himself into the white faced, murderous ghoul that is Sweeney Todd. In a role utterly without cuteness, he’s the ideal man for the job, suffusing Todd with nothing but the pure drive for vengeance. It obsesses him to the point that he barely functions when not acting out his murders. He also has little but hate for London – early in the film, as he’s sailing into the city with Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bowers), both sing about it, but whereas Hope’s verses are filled with optimism, Todd imagines a hole in the world like a great black pit, inhabited by the vermin of the world.
Once one gets over the channelling of David Bowie in his singing voice, Depp’s performance can be relished as a cracker stuffed with malevolence and moral emptiness. Better still is Helena Bonham Carter as the tragic Mrs Lovett. Pathetically imagining a future for herself and Todd (realised in a segment that has the unlikely pair on a beach holiday – Depp has never looked more depressed), she becomes his willing partner in crime when she agrees to use his victims as ingredients, which has the unexpectedly happy side effect of making her pies not just edible, but cornering the market.
It’s all going to come to a sticky end, of course, but before that there’s blood, blood and more blood, coursing through the credits and from Todd’s grisly barber’s chair, which is fitted with a special trapdoor he can operate with a switch that turns the former patrons into meat pie fillings. The dull thud of their bodies onto the stones below is as sickening as any number of cut throats.
Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street: ****