There’s something both strange and familiar about Sweeney Todd. It is a tale that has been recounted on both the large and small screens several times over the last century and yet most people only know the broad strokes of the story – the serial killer who runs a barber’s shop that provides filling for the meat pies in the café below. This is mainly because, unlike the two other most famous Victorian serial killers – Jack the Ripper and Jeckyll/Hyde – Sweeney Todd isn’t based on a well-documented case or a famous novel but is a continuing game of Chinese whispers that began as a ‘penny dreadful’ around 1847. To this day there is a continuing debate regarding whether the folk tale is based on truth or not and each generation has added new details. Tim Burton’s new film version of the story, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical, includes Sweeney’s alter ego Benjamin Barker, who was only added to the mythos in the early 70s.
Familiarity also comes from the fact that this is almost the culmination of a life work’s for Burton – it is the third musical he has directed (following Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas), the sixth film of his to feature Johnny Depp in the lead, the fifth with Helena Bonham Carter (the third that all three of them worked on together) and yet another love letter from the director to the Anglo-American school of gothic romance and horror. It combines the Grand Guignol of his earlier Sleepy Hollow with the razor-fingered melodrama of Edward Scissorhands to the extent that when Depp exclaims, ‘At last my hand is complete’, while holding a razor it feels like a prequel to Edward, albeit one with an 18 certificate.
For all its familiarity though, I imagine Tim Burton’s film will be the first full telling of the story that at least one generation has come across. A brilliant combination of vocals, victuals and Victorian horror, this is one of the finest musicals I’ve seen on screen in years.
Watching the badly weighted trailer and with the precedent of the ill-judged Mars Attacks in mind, I had worried in advance that the combination of murder, black comedy and musical might be a dreadful mismatch, but unlike Burton’s pointless remake of Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd is one revival perfectly matched to the director’s sensibilities. Though not as catchy as the first musical Burton plotted (Nightmare) and at times needing a little more tightening, Sweeney Todd could bring an entirely new audience to the musical genre with its combination of extreme horror and unexpectedly good vocal performances from all the leads. This is no glitzy melodrama designed to appeal to fans of Moulin Rouge or Evita but a potent horror film where the characters just happen to deliver their dialogue to music.
Johnny Depp is a brilliant character-actor (and now a bankable star on the back of Pirates of the Caribbean) and has always been at his best in Burton’s films. Here, he delivers a performance as memorable as Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, his mentor’s love of kitsch coming through via the white streak in Sweeney’s hair that seems borrowed from Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. Bonham Carter is also on top form in another doomed romance that sees her mix a sickly pallor with a love of violence. In another strange echo, her final scene recalls her own role as the bride of Frankenstein in Kenneth Branagh’s risible Mary Shelley adaptation.
Depp and Bonham Carter already sang love duets from beyond the grave in the earlier Corpse Bride, but no one really noticed because the songs were delivered by their CGI avatars. Here, her unrequited love is surprisingly poignant even as she disposes of her man’s victims and makes cannibalism the latest diet on the streets of London. It’s a hard trick to make death beautiful, especially when it’s so bloody, but for every brutal throat-slashing in the movie there is an exquisite exsanguination – the severed jugular coating the throat in a scarlet damask or the outline of an angel appearing in rhesus negative on the floor. Elsewhere, the set design mixes the director’s continuing love of German Expressionism with the latest CGI, making the cobbled stones and soot-blackened bricks of nineteenth-century London spring as vividly to life as the consumptive pallor of its inhabitants.
As Burton brings another famous gothic tale of terror to the screen, the only real surprise (other than the amount of blood) is the lack of a horror icon in the cast – no contemporary of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Michael Gough here. However, the British character-actors Burton has assembled work wonders in their somewhat caricatured roles: Alan Rickman as the evil pantomime villain (following similar turns in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and Timothy Spall as his henchman. Unlike the rest of the world, I’m not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen but here he is well cast as Sweeney’s absurd rival Pirelli, affecting an over-the-top Italian accent that segues into Cockney behind closed doors. Less successful are new comers Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna, both bland and twee in their parts – the former in particular, a younger, prettier Jonathan Rhys Meyers lookalike. The only other slight disappointment is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Anthony (Stewart) Head, which I hoped would lead to at least one musical number…
American critics, pondering the success of this movie, wondered whether the marketing campaign was based on what they call a ‘bait and switch’ strategy, where you tempt someone with something but swap it for an item less palatable at the last minute, to whit: it was marketed as a (comedy) horror film but what audiences get is in fact a musical. However, while the first grisly murder may take a little while coming, subsequent deaths follow in rapid succession with increasingly lurid amounts of claret filling the screen. So for anyone who didn’t know this came with lyrics, music and a book, rest assured it is a horror film as well as a musical, and a very successful example of both.