Ah, don’t you love a good musical? Jolly-jolly, feel-good fun-and games, full of cheery cockneys bursting into song at the slightest provocation; fun for all the family! No? Perhaps not. In 2007, Tim Burton took on the challenge of adapting Stephen Sondheim’s classic tale of madness, revenge and pies; a bleak and blood-soaked, yet darkly comic masterpiece, with murders you can really hum.*
I confess, my initial reaction to hearing about this film was to groan and roll my eyes at the casting. Nothing against either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter, both of whom I have a great respect for, but I felt that the Burton/Depp/Bonham-Carter collaborations were getting a bit beyond a joke. There are other actors in the world, you know. And the trailer didn’t help matters. Depp’s mockney accent was disconcertingly reminiscent of his role as Captain Jack Sparrow. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to shake the loveable rogue from my mind, but his first appearance allayed my fears. The characters may share the accent and cheekbones, but there the resemblance ends. The hatred and sarcasm that infuses every word as he sneers, “There’s no place like London!” is as far from the irrepressible pirate as you can get. In fact, when I saw a clip of a Pirates film recently, it took me a moment to remind myself that it actually was the same actor. Todd’s mind is a dark, bitter place, seen through dead-looking eyes occasionally animated by a crazed spark.
Yet Sondheim’s version of Sweeney Todd is more than just a pantomime psychopath, but a man driven over the edge by injustice, grief and an obsession with revenge. His backstory helps the viewer to understand his motivation and not quite disapprove as much as one might expect. After all: “It’s man devouring man, my dear/and who are we to deny it in here?” I have to say, I agree with Discworld's Sam Vimes, and can't see why anyone would want someone else waving a sharp blade anywhere near their neck in the first place. Especially if one is a creep and a villain who makes enemies like Mrs Lovett makes pies.
There is a stellar cast featuring many Harry Potter veterans – perhaps not surprising as most British actors have featured in that series – all Death Eaters, former Death Eaters or other Dark Wizards. As well as Helena Bonham Carter, we have a gloriously disturbing performance from Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin, and Timothy “Wormtail” Spall as the crawling yes-man Beadle Bamford. Finally, newcomer Jamie Campbell Bower (Gellert Grindelwald) appears as the young romantic hero, whose name refuses to stick in my head and so therefore will be called Pretty Boy forever and always. Campbell Bower had a lovely tenor singing voice, but his facial acting was, shall we say, not quite there yet. I discussed this with my sister during the scenes in which he was caught “gandering” at Sweeney’s daughter by her guardian Judge Turpin.
Me: If Alan Rickman’s Voice was doing that to me, I wouldn’t be looking mildly curious. I wouldn’t need to act; I’d actually be terrified.
Jen: I don’t know; I think this is his "”I’m peeing myself and trying not to look cold and damp” look.Maybe my heart is as black as Sweeney’s, but I found the love story between Johanna and Pretty Boy rather silly, if not downright Twilight-creepy. Either Pretty Boy is lacking some of his wits, or has a misplaced sense of chivalry, but after being beaten and thrown from the house, he’s promising to “steal you/Johanna!” One wonders whether Johanna is fated to exchange a creepy stalker of sixty for one of sixteen…
Apparently Johnny Depp was nervous about taking a singing role, but he does an admirable job. His singing voice is unpolished, a bit harsh, but full of emotion and always true to the character. He is, after all, an actor first and foremost. Depp leads the cast well, and his voice contrasts nicely with Jamie Campbell Bower’s pure, soaring tenor, and Alan Rickman’s menacing bass.
Helena Bonham Carter playing a messy-haired madwoman might sound very familiar to Harry Potter fans, but her Mrs Lovett is a much more subtle character than Bellatrix Lestrange, motherly and down-to-earth, darkly comic in her deadpan, practical manner after her initial shock at discovering that her lodger has just killed a man. “Seems an awful waste//I mean, with the price of meat what it is when you get it/if you get it…” “Ah!” “Good, you’ve got it…!”
Yes, Sweeney Todd is gory and gruesome, but what can you expect with the subject matter? Despite preparing myself I was quite horrified on my first viewing, but after the first murder, one seems to become somewhat desensitised to most of the blood, right until the final murders which become shocking again. But Sweeney Todd is more than an unashamed splatter-fest, and even the messy moments are quite emotional in their way. Musically, my favourite part is the reprise of “Johanna,” when Sweeney and the Pretty Boy are singing two separate melodies. This song charts Sweeney’s descent into madness, and if you listen to the lyrics – wow, they are heartrending! While he mechanically slashes his way through his clients, he seems to be aware that he is becoming disconnected and out of control, vaguely conscious of his loss of self and purpose and his inevitable fate.
“I think we shall not meet again/my little dove/my sweet/Johanna”
“And though I’ll think of you, I guess, until the day I die/I think I miss you less and less as every day goes by/Johanna!”Curse you, Stephen Sondheim, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for a barber who murders his clients and turns them into pies!
I’m off to see the stage show in Chichester this week. No Death Eaters in this version, but another Harry Potter veteran whose character was actually even more unpleasant! This version will star Michael Ball as Sweeney Todd and Imelda Staunton playing Mrs Lovett. I can’t wait.
*Maskerade, Terry Pratchett