Meat Really Is Murder

Emma Dibdin 31 January 2008

Sweeney Todd

4 stars

This sixth Burton-Depp collaboration does not exactly scream “audience friendly”. It can’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone that a story of a serial killer-cum-barber who makes pies out of his victims – while singing –failed to pull in much of a pre-Christmas US audience. But critics loved it, and with good reason; this is Burton in his macabre element, and while at times he revels in his material a little too much this still emerges as a successful and, more to the point, hugely enjoyable endeavour.

The plot is pure dark melodrama: a mild-mannered barber (Depp) is deported on false charges, and returns years later under the pseudonym Sweeney Todd to find his once-happy life in ruins. His wife is dead, driven to suicide by his jailor, the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who has also claimed Todd’s daughter as his ward. Understandably less than thrilled by this turn of events, he sets up shop above the besotted Mrs Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop, and begins plotting revenge.

Things get a lot more complicated, of course, and after various hindrances including an underwritten romance subplot and a near-cameo from Sacha Baron Cohen as flamboyant rival barber Pirelli, Sweeney discovers a novel mode of anger management, and the bloodletting begins in earnest. It’s in these slaughter sequences that the striking use of colour is most noticeable, the splashes (read: torrents) of claret standing out against a palette of greys and browns, as drained of colour as Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was saturated. The idyllic gold hue of flashbacks, contrasted with the worn bleakness of the present day demonstrates that Burton’s visual flair is as sharp as it ever was.

As far as the music goes, this is about as naturalistic as a genre that requires characters to intermittently break into spontaneous song can get. Fans of the original have bemoaned Burton’s removal of the opening ‘Ballad Of Sweeney Todd’ number, vetoed for being too theatrical. It’s this kind of showstopper flourish that the film strives to avoid, opting instead for a matter-of-fact tone that frequently sees dialogue and conversation taking place through songs, rather than being interrupted by them.

That’s not to say that there’s anything down to earth about much of what goes on. Half the joy of the film is seeing a larger than life character (Todd’s plight is at times almost on the level of Greek tragedy) trying to exist within a recognisable reality, alongside characters like Mrs Lovett who are so grounded in the mundane and the everyday. The brilliantly realised ‘By The Sea’ sequence, which paints an idyllic picture of Mrs Lovett’s happily-ever-after fantasies shows Sweeney hilariously at odds with the world around him, and should assuage any accusations of the film taking itself too seriously.

The question on everyone’s minds is, of course, can Depp sing? Yes. Yes he can. His voice isn’t Broadway-calibre but soulful and steeped in emotion, with a raw quality entirely befitting his ravaged character. It’s also a brilliant performance, every swagger and snarl counterbalanced with moments of quiet passion. Depp emanates misery to such an extent that it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for him, though he never attempts to soften or make amends for his character’s ruthless savagery.

But Depp’s isn’t the only noteworthy performance here. Bonham Carter brings a much-needed tenderness to the proceedings, her earthy character grounding and softening Sweeney’s sharper edges, while Alan Rickman is at his villainous best as the man responsible for just about every bad thing that happens. It doesn’t all work; there’s a slight sense of missed opportunity in the young lovers’ plot in particular, and the two roles of Sweeney’s friend and his long-lost daughter might both have provided some insight into his equally long-lost humanity, but the film’s inevitably tragic climax offers no such resolution. There also seems to be a point where Sweeney’s thirst for vengeance morphs into a rather random bloodlust, the motivation for which is never entirely clear.

But these flaws aren’t enough to detract from the enormous entertainment value, or from the fact that Depp now seems established as the De Niro to Burton’s Scorsese. This is Burton’s darkest and most satisfying film in years, a bloody, brooding, unabashed and ultimately magnificent venture.

Emma Dibdin