As a fan of Stephen Sondheim's music, I was keen to see what director Tim Burton made of his musical Sweeney Todd, and ventured uncharacteristically forth to my local multiplex recently, little knowing what a surprise I was in for - despite the avalanche of pre-release publicity. It's said that some early viewers walked out of the film, unaware from the trailers that it was a musical. But I nearly walked out, not realising how horrifying it was going to be. It must be one of the most disturbingly unpleasant films I've ever seen - and I'm sure Tim Burton would take that as a compliment.
Let's get the positives established first. There were first rate performances from Johnny Depp as Sweeney, Helena Bonkham-Carter as Mrs Lovett, Alan Rickman as the villainous high-court judge, Timothy Spall as the obnoxious Beadle, and Sasha Baron-Cohen as the mountebank Signor Pirelli. No problems with casting, acting, or mise en scene. Burton is obviously a master of Victorian grande guignol, and the audience in the cinema viewing I attended were young folk, lapping up the gore and the shock effects.
And yet the settings are curiously unconvincing and cardboard-like. Given that spectacular effects are achievable using computer-generated imagery today, I was surprised that he went for sets that might have come from a film made fifty years ago. Unless that was a deliberate effect on Burton's part. It's hard to tell if he's trying to create a credible nineteenth century London or the stage setting for a musical about the same subject, full of gloomy paint effects, plastic cobwebs, sewers, scuttling rats, and dusty wigs.
But the story is tightly controlled. Sweeney returns to London after fifteen years of deportation after a false conviction, intent on revenge. The corrupt judge who sentenced him has raped his wife and imprisoned his daughter. Sweeney sets up shop with Mrs Lovett and then murders selected victims, waiting for the judge. She bakes them into meat pies, and as a couple they prosper. So far so good - though Johnny Depp never smiles once throughout the whole film, whilst Bonkham-Carter pouts seductively as she does so well, and works her push-up bra to maximum effect.
It's Sweeney's unrelenting anger and thirst for vengeance which fuels the narrative. And it's this, plus the betrayals and savagery which make the whole thing such a gut-wrenching experience. The horror of all the throat-slitting, and the immense thuds of the bodies hitting the cellar floor are difficult to bear. In fact the hyper-realism of these scenes struck me as at odds with the stereotype Dickensian London in which it all took place. The horror, the horror.
I was relieved to read afterwards on Wikipedia that the whole Sweeney Todd story is more or less a fiction. It's a myth, cobbled together from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls, but given a very skilful twist by Christopher Bond in 1973 to create a play on which Sondheim based his successful 1979 musical. One might wonder why these people wish to resurrect such an unpleasant story just at this time. Pause for thought.
The music was good too, though I couldn't understand why one of the best songs from the original musical - The Ballad of Sweeney Todd - wasn't used in the film. It sums up the whole story - which as the show's original prologue it was designed to do. "Swing your razor wide! Sweeney, hold it to the skies" - which Johnny Depp does repeatedly. Maybe that would have given too much away to the young blood-thirsty, horror film devotees who were the majority of the audience, stuffing their faces with so much junk food and popcorn that a small army of cleaners were waiting to clean up as the credits were rolling.
The scenes are quite (unfortunately) unforgettable; the performances are good; the theatricality well worked to provide the audience with a shock-horror experience - and maybe I'm a bit insulated from this modern cinematic genre - but when I came out of the cinema I felt like going home and watching Bambi or The Sound of Music. But I'm glad I saw it - honest.