Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

After a career of dark-hued fairytales, Tim Burton takes things to the limit with 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'. But full of music, singing and buckets of blood, will it scare off its audience?
Burton's movie, despite the singing, reminds me of nothing so much as a Hammer horror movie. This is probably as much due to the particularly vivid colour of the blood used copiously (very reminiscent of 'Dracula, Prince of Darkness') as anything else. But Burton has been threatening to replicate the Hammer style all his career and most explicitly (before now) in 'Sleepy Hollow'. It does, however, make me wonder how Hammer never made a stab at this most quintessentially English horror tale. The barber from Fleet Street who slits his customers' throats, sending their souls to Heaven and their bodies to Mrs Lovett's Meat Pie Shop (as tasty filling for the pastries), is a figure who has kept me away from barbershop shaving all my life. I have never seen the 1936 version of the tale featuring the aptly named Tod Slaughter, but as a child I did see a relatively graphic spoof by the Two Ronnies. Not a duo one normally associates with gore and terror (though Corbett in the chair was often painful). Funnily enough though that particular version left a very unpleasant impression on my young mind (and apparently I'm not alone).
Stephen Sondheim's musical take on the tale introduces a revenge element I was unfamiliar with. Wrongfully convicted for a crime of which he is innocent, Johnny Depp's Todd is deported to make way for a lecherous judge with designs on his wife. Returning fourteen years later he seeks vengence on the man who destroyed his family. Full of misanthropic disgust, he practises for this revenge on an unsuspecting public.
Apparently Sondheim has endorsed Burton's adaptation. It's hardly surprising, if only for the look and technical brio of Burton's work. With a desaturated palette and unrelentingly grim tone, the only light introduced is via the deliciously black humour, much of which lies in the excellent songs. Again this depraved vision of the world accords well with the Hammer sensibility (there are few good characters, and those there are are weak and naive). As in so many of the British studio's horrors, the forces of Good are thin on the ground, requiring the villains to contain the seeds of their own destruction in their own monstrosity.
Much has been said of Depp's performance, though in truth outside of glower and leer nothing too much is required of the character. Nevertheless Depp delivers the glowering and leering with great aplomb. Things really come alive when the singing starts and his stand-out scene is his reunion with his razors. The music, the singing, the staging make this a wonderful moment. However, much of the movie belongs to Mrs Lovett aka Mrs Burton aka Helena Bonham Carter. She is the real heart of the film, black though that heart might be. We are never less than sure of Todd's motives, but Lovett is far more complex and Carter conveys that ambiguity of character nicely.
Nevertheless after the bravura opening things do drag a little until the blood-letting starts. After that the blood flows. And it spatters. And sprays. And pumps. And jets. During one of these bloody scenes, there was an awful liquidy explosion from the seats beside me. Much as it sounded like a severed jugular, I had a suspicion it might be vomit. Touching my head I felt a drop or two of something. i could do nothing but wait and see if the stink began. It didn't and after the movie the pair behind me leant over and apologised; midway through the movie their bottle of sparkling water erupted. Phewww!
I have never been a strong fan of musicals, but movies like 'Cabaret' and 'Singing in the Rain' rank among some of my all time favourite films (not to mention the incredible 'South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut'). 'Sweeney Todd' may not be of the very highest rank, but it's close. It would be churlish to criticise it too much as there is so much to admire in it. It's certainly one I look forward to seeing again.

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