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Movies Review

Sweeney Todd

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Sweeney Todd
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: John Logan
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running time: 95 mins
Certificate: 18

Tim Burton's latest collaboration with Johnny Depp isn't their first to revolve around the perilous potential of the blade. 17 years have passed since the masterful Edward Scissorhands and the partnership still retains its cutting edge with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Steet. Immersing us in a nightmarish London, decked out with grey skies, lanterns and cobblestones, this magnificently realised musical from Stephen Sondheim contains the right blend of emotional pathos, stunning visuals and accessible songs. It’s also a better deterrent for meat pies than anything Jamie Oliver could possibly muster.

The story revolves around the vengeance wreaked by Benjamin Barker (Depp) on those who falsely imprisoned him for 15 years in order to move in on his gorgeous wife and baby daughter. Hooking up with the seriously disturbed piemaker Nellie Lovett (Bonham Carter), Barker reinvents himself as Sweeney Todd - a barber who gives the closest shave in town. After wowing the crowds with his razor skills and dispatching flamboyant rival Pirelli, Todd lures some of his old foes into his chair. Before long, people are going missing and Nellie's pies have a unique taste that causes business to prosper. All that remains for Todd is to capture the prize scalp of the villainous Judge Turpin (Rickman).

There's no doubt that the gory plot is well suited to Burton's keen eye. An outstanding opening title sequence, comparable to that of Mars Attacks in terms of its visual flair, is immediately gripping and opens up a grim diegetic world oozing with blood and menace. Then Sweeney Todd comes up against an obstacle that must have had the Warner Bros marketing department cowering in the corner - the songs.

Previous attempts to bring musicals to the cinema screen have been mostly lacklustre and eyebrows were raised by the lack of recognised singing talent in the Sweeney Todd cast. Fortunately, this is a rare occasion when the musical interludes - of which there are many - propel the narrative instead of halting it. The lyrics work as a vessel for vital background information and the characters' intents, while the gruff warbling from Depp and Rickman acutely denote the embittered psychological states of their characters - without giving Aled Jones any sleepless nights.

In lesser films, songs can prove to be an alienation device by emphasising the constructed artifice of the film, foregrounding the performance aspect and losing the audience's belief in the onscreen events. Here, they fit in seamlessly as part of the cohesive and bold direction from Burton.

The calibre of acting is uniformly sublime from the veteran thespians to the younger performers. Depp and Bonham Carter complement each other well as the devious couple, their sunken eyes often saying more than several pages of script. Similarly, Burton's expressionistic landscapes also convey a great deal, with the rare flashes of bright colour serving a narrative function by transporting us into the warmer memories of Barker/Todd. They also highlight the brutal barber's potential for compassion and good, eroded by the injustices of humanity. It's hard not to feel pity for the man as he yearns to turn the nightmare into a dream.

Those of a squeamish disposition had better have their fingers poised to cover the eyes, as the blood-letting is rife and graphic. Despite the actual blood being a cartoonish red to deliberately desensitise it, in a similar vein to the original Dawn of the Dead, it still carries a massive impact.

An absorbing and sad tale, it's hard to imagine how Sweeney Todd could have been translated from stage to screen any better. Unlike the contents of Nellie Lovett's meat pies, the film's ingredients are a tasty combination of fun, horror, tears and no dodgy aftertaste.

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