Friday, 25 January 2008

Film Review: Sweeney Todd

Not being a homosexual, I don’t often watch musicals.

But, despite the serious missteps of Sleepy Hollow and Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, the hope that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp would use one of London’s greatest urban myths to finally live up to their joint career high of Ed Wood was enough to entice me to a cinema seat.

The movie follows Christopher Bond’s 1973 version of the tale, which eschews the original 1840s premise of Todd being in it for the money, and instead turns it into a violent Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Corrupt Judge Turpin falls in love with the beautiful wife of happy-go-lucky London barber and father-of-one, Benjamin Barker. As his obsession grows, Turpin has Barker tried on trumped-up charges and the barber is carted off to Australia. This, of course, was back when a trip down under was a form of punishment and not a feat religiously performed by work-shy graduates.

Having had enough of barbecue, Jack Johnson, arrogance and whatever else passes for entertainment in Australia, Barker returns 15 years later calling himself Sweeney Todd, and with murder on his mind. He’ll kill as many as it takes to have his revenge, but there’s only one throat he’ll take pleasure in cutting.

That throat belongs to Alan Rickman – at his Prince Of Thieves cruellest as Turpin – who, in the 15 years since he passed sentence, has superseded his obsession for Todd’s wife with a perverted passion for his daughter.

The other members of the support cast all excel. Sacha Baron Cohen proves, as the mountebank barber in an outfit that leaves only slightly less to the imagination than his infamous Borat bikini, Signor Adolfo Pirelli, that when he’s not running his own one-joke characters into the ground, he’s actually a great comic actor. Timothy Spall is diabolically grotesque as the louche Beadle Bamford, Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs Lovett is delightfully demented, while Ed Sanders is magnificently mischievous as Tobias Ragg, the indentured 10-year-old slave with a taste for gin.

All of which would mean little if the songs weren’t any good, but Stephen Sondheim’s optimistic hummables sit in perfect contrast to Burton’s gothic grisliness, with Pretty Women (thankfully not a version of Roy Orbison’s risible piece of shit) a particular highlight.

The singing doesn’t always match the quality of the music, and it’s obvious why Johnny Depp left the vocal duties to The Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes in their short-lived band, P. While he makes his disgust and loathing clear on A Little Priest and My Friends, Depp too often sounds like he’s auditioning for a role as David Bowie on Stars In Their Eyes.

That quibble aside, Depp impresses as a protagonist so consumed with hatred that his only real relationship is with his razors. So much so that, despite her corseted cleavage, he only really notices his partner-in-crime, Mrs Lovett, when she suggests cannibalism as a means to dispose of the corpses.

The film is cruel and misanthropic, displaying spectacular sanguinary ultra violence that Takashi Miike would be proud of. Everybody is doomed. Everybody dies. This is not just a musical, it’s opera.

And you know what? It’s bloody brilliant.

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