It’s surprisingly reassuring when a recent mainstream movie release based on source material from yesteryear actually transpires successfully to capture the original’s essence and intent without being reduced or reworked in order to pander to modern audiences. Tim Burton’s screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is boldly faithful to the 1979 Tony Award winning Broadway musical and will, no doubt, be largely responsible for capturing the ears of the next generation of Sondheim devotees.
Johnny Depp stars as Benjamin Barker, an accomplished barber whose life is destroyed by the lascivious, malfeasant Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) when he rapes his wife Lucy, has him falsely sentenced and deported to Australia and takes custody of his young daughter Johanna when her mother is committed to an asylum. On his eventual return 15 years later Barker assumes the alias of Sweeney Todd and takes a room above a ramshackle pie shop run by Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who misleads him to believe that his wife is dead.
Todd gets a chance to prove his prowess with the blade when he decries the ersatz Italian confidence trickster ‘Signor’ Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) of hawking fake hair tonic and they go head to head in a public shaving contest which is presided over by Judge Turpin’s sycophantic sidekick the Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). Todd is declared the winner and his skills are duly noted by the Beadle who later recommends that the unkempt Judge pay him a visit; providing Sweeney with a fleeting opportunity for retribution that’s interrupted by Anthony, a young man who is infatuated with Johanna and plans to free her from the clutches of the evil Judge.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a grotesque revenger’s tragedy in the Grand Guignol tradition, perfectly suited to the team of Burton and Depp whose previous movies Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow are equally steeped in this particular brand of goofy Gothicism. When Todd fails to take vengeance on Turpin he goes on a maniacal killing spree, striking up an enterprising relationship with Mrs Lovett providing her with the much needed meat for her notorious ‘worst pies in London’. The film manages to blend the operatic heights of Sondheim’s score with hair-raisingly stylised images of gore, as copious amounts of ruby red blood spurt from the slashed throats of the various victims whose fate brings them to an abrupt end in barber’s chair.
The Warner Bros. Blu-ray release features an exemplary 1080p/VC1 transfer maintaining the original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Burton’s penchant for high contrast blacks and opulent scarlet tones is evident here, unlike the excessive picture crush that marred the Paramount hidef release of Sleepy Hollow. It’s no surprise for a film that contains 85% songs and recitative that all the stops have been pulled out in presenting the soundtrack, a TrueHD 5.1 mix of exceptional clarity featuring a massive orchestra of 78 musicians, compared to the customary 27 used in theatrical productions, and an immersive use of the vocal channels.
Along with the usual ‘EPK type’ material are three standout extra features, the first is an historic look at the title character who started life in the Victorian ‘Penny Dreadful’ serial publications and grew into a legendary villain of stage and screen, the second an introduction to French Horror theatrics of the Grand Guignol and the third (and my personal favourite) is an all-too-brief but compact, contemporary interview with Stephen Sondheim; charting the genesis of the original musical and his close participation in realising Tim Burton’s movie treatment of it.
Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an unexpected delight and I am now eagerly anticipating the film version of Sondheim’s Follies whose marvellous score is set to benefit from a fresh Aaron Sorkin screenplay.