Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Peter Bradshaw
Friday January 25, 2008
The Guardian


Johnny Depp sounded like Keith Richards in Pirates of the Caribbean. In this movie, he actually has to sing and the result is a jaunty mix of Anthony Newley and David Bowie. Depp stars in Tim Burton's screen version of Stephen Sondheim's neo-Victorian horror panto Sweeney Todd, for which critical superlatives more appropriate for the Sistine Chapel ceiling have been lavished. I have to admit to being agnostic; for me, Sondheim's music, though forceful and fluent, slides through the mind leaving me with a faint hankering for the vulgar satisfactions of memorable tunes.


Depp plays the malevolent serial-killer barber of legend at large in a gloomy and sepulchral CGI-London of the 1800s or thereabouts (not dissimilar from the London he inhabited playing the copper on the trail of Jack the Ripper in From Hell). Fifteen years before, his name was Benjamin Barker, a timid, law-abiding hairdresser arrested and sentenced to transportation on a trumped-up charge by the creepy Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who was infatuated with Barker's comely wife. Now he has escaped, fetching up back in London and intent on discovering the fate of his wife and daughter. Vowing revenge on Turpin and an uncaring world, he sets up shop once again under a new moniker, slitting customers' throats and shoving the bodies downstairs where they make up the secret ingredient in the "Meat Pies" offered to the public by Todd's ally and lover, the hideous Mrs Lovett, played by Helena Bonham Carter.

Depp's Todd is credibly older and careworn, with dark circles under the eyes, a Cruella De Vil skunk-stripe of grey in the hair, and in general a Scissorhands-y look. Bonham Carter looks sallow and dishevelled in a similar way. They are not lovers so much as quasi-siblings, like the White Stripes. Depp never smiles, is given to gazing broodingly into the middle distance and never seems to make eye-contact with anyone.

It is lively, and there is one tremendous fantasy sequence, brilliantly lit with hyperreal sunshine, in which Mrs Lovett daydreams about a life together with Sweeney by the seaside as a married couple. But I was repeatedly disconcerted by how muted and even oddly tasteful the proceedings were. The moment Sacha Baron Cohen came on, playing Todd's hated enemy, the grotesque Italian barber Signor Pirelli, I grinned with Pavlovian anticipation, and yet there just weren't any funny lines for him to say - or sing. And there is always something Lionel Bart-ish about quaintly imagined smudgy-faced "urchins" played by child actors who look as if they would be more at home taking the opening solo verse of Once in Royal David's City for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Cambridge.

There is something in the flattening effect of the CGI work that abolishes the sense of space - and with it, the sense of danger. The one genuinely unpleasant image comes when we are looking down Todd's death chute at one of his bodies, which lies broken and spreadeagled below, eyes staring, and arranged asymmetrically in the frame. For the rest: well, it's an entertaining, unscary digital ride through the London Dungeon, accompanied by classy music. Likable: but no masterpiece.

chute – zjeżdżalnia, pochylnia

disconcerted - zażenowany

hankering - pragnienie

jaunty – beztroski; zawadiacki

lavish – obdarowywać, rozdawać

malevolent – niechętny, wrogi

mix – mieszanka, połączenie

moniker – przezwisko, przydomek

panto - pantomima

sepulchral - grobowy

slit –rozcinać, ciąć

spreadeagled – z rozrzuconymi rękami i nogami

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