Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (UK - DVD R2)
Leigh Riding takes a look at the latest Burton and Depp collaboration on DVD
In the latest adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's famous musical, long-time working partners Tim Burton and Johnny Depp reunite to tackle a much loved story.
Todd (Depp), a London barber returning home after being falsely imprisoned by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) years earlier. He returns to his old neighbourhood, where he meets Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of a rather woeful pie shop. Todd hatches a plan for revenge, not only on Turpin, but on society itself. Opening a barber shop above Mrs. Lovett's bakery, once his customers put the towel around their neck Todd murders each one of them, impatiently waiting for the day that Turpin will sit in his chair.
Men hate musicals. This is not a critique, it is scientific fact. In fact, it's embedded in every male's genetic code. Every time I hear the M word, I end up getting night sweats while being plagued by images of Julie Andrews pelting down a hill dressed like a milk maid while making noises that attract wild dogs, and thirty year old actors pretending they're teenage high school greasers in the 50s, all with eyes as wide as dinner plates. I'm quite simply not a fan of the genre. I find them to be very shrill and campy, and especially if it's a film like Chicago, as I find the breaking into song robs the picture of the drama.
This made me very wary of Sweeney Todd. For the record, I am a huge Tim Burton fan. Anybody who knows his body of work will be aware there is gothic overtones in almost all of his work, but also quite a bit of whimsy that take his lighter films such as Big Fish rather saccharine and less enjoyable for me personally. Having never seen any other version of Sweeney Todd, I had no idea what to expect when I put the disc in. I was quite prepared for this film to tip over into standard musical territory and end up in the middle ground, but I was proved very wrong. This is one dark film.
Of course this is not the first time Tim Burton has tackled the horror genre. It's safe to say there is an element of this in most his other films, from Beetlejuice to Batman Returns, but only one bona fide horror movie in Sleepy Hollow, and Sweeney Todd comes across as a companion piece to that film. They both share a very strong gallows humour, and if anything Todd is the darker of the two. The film has a wicked streak of dark humour throughout, which makes the murder scenes even more eyebrow-raising. Burton has never been one for gore (despite numerous beheadings, even Sleepy Hollow was pretty much bloodless), so it's surprising to see so much blood flowing. There is so much plasma spurting across the screen, I had trouble finding suitable screenshots for the review. In fact the violence is quite hard hitting; there is a scene early in the picture involving a hot kettle and a key character's face that took me completely by surprise.
The visual style of the film doesn't exactly scream 'musical' either. Aside from Bonham Carter's occasional wistful family moments, the entire film is practically black and white, with the only colour coming from the bright red of slit throats. Production design is also superb, and again brings to mind the grand sets of earlier Burton.
The horror element, although not anything that would trouble a fan of the genre, is in place and is successful. The problem would be how it marries up with the musical side of the film. As I said, musicals aren't my bag. One thing I really don't like is if I happen to be watching a film like Moulin Rouge, the plot grinds to a halt as everybody breaks into a song and dance routine, striking the storytelling dead for five minutes. In Todd however, the songs arrive with no fanfare; songs are treated as dialogue. Huge production numbers are non existent, and the actors perform the songs as if they were monologues. Dramatically this works extremely well, and while this is not unusual for a theatre show, it's not so common on the big screen. It has to be said; Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter can't sing. It's a testament to the actors that the film doesn't suffer as a result.
I have to say that I still don't like musicals. However, Sweeney Todd is a shining example of not judging a book by it's cover. I was absolutely riveted throughout, and I've not been so engrossed in a film in years. This may be an acquired taste, I admit—I'm not so sure that all fans of either of the genres Todd covers will embrace the movie, but it worked for me superbly.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, this is a very impressive picture. The transfer this offers is rather interesting, as other than the blood, Sascha Baron Cohen's clothes and the occasional flashback, the movie is almost in black and white. The image is incredibly sharp and clear, with no overly noticeable grain present, and as near to reference quality as you will get outside of BD. Blacks are handled superbly, and the colour sequences practically dazzle. Even viewed on the tricky medium of LCD, the blacks hold up very well. An ideal disc to use when you want to show off your home cinema kit.
Considering it's a musical, Warner was never going to get away with anything shoddy. Naturally, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is sublime. The trick was always going to be finding the happy balance between dialogue and lyrics, and this is handled incredibly well. The gentle swell of the score is never overbearing when the songs arrive, and never takes the viewer out of the movie. The 5.1 separation is exceptional, with the rears being particularly well handled. However, Warner drops the ball by failing to add a DTS track. It's a fairly rare occurrence that they do offer one, but of all the films that could really benefit from it Sweeney Todd is it.
Although we have a meaty set of features on the second disc, this is actually a truncated version of the region one disc, missing several features. However, the remainder is still comprehensive. ‘Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd’ is removed from the region one's feature disc and dropped onto disc two. This is a surprisingly good ‘making of’, with some fairly honest comments from Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter about the movie. The most interesting insight is from Bonham Carter, who reveals the fact that Burton (her husband) hates musicals. In ‘Sweeney is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber’ several historians discuss the Sweeney Todd legend and detail the way the story has been handed down and evolved over the many years. ‘Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd’ is notable in that it's the only input Sondheim has on the DVD. ‘Sweeney's London’ takes a look at the area as depicted in the film and the stage show. ‘Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition’ gives insight into the history of the origins of theatrical horror, moving from it's French stage roots to present day, but strangely not touching upon the 60s horror movies that took the influence. ‘Designs for a Demon Barber’ shows the incredible amount of work that went into the look of the movie. ‘A Bloody Business’ is one of the smaller features, and cover the creation of the gore effects. ‘The Razor's Refrain’ is a series of stills set to a song from the movie. The inclusion of a photo gallery is baffling, as it contains the same stills as ‘Razor's Refrain’. It's an impressive set of features, but the US disc takes the honours.
Sweeney Todd is a superb film. Tim Burton has successfully found a balance between two genres that, although compatible on a theatre stage, could quite easily have clashed on the cinema screen. I would go so far as to say it's the best film I have seen in a long time, and I recommend it incredibly highly to anybody who wants to take a chance on it. However, there is a possibility that it may not find its targeted audience. As I said, theatre fans accept this, but cinemagoers are a different kettle of fish. I'm not too sure that the average musical fan will take to something that isn't as chintzy or as uplifting as Mamma Mia! The Musical for example, and it's not gory or scary enough for the horror set. Approach Todd as its own beast, and I think it will win the viewer over.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 19th March 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Audio Descriptive 2.0 Surround English
Subtitles: English, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, English HoH
Extras: Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd, Sweeny Todd Is Alive: The Real Story of the Demon Barber, Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeny Todd, Sweeny's London, Designs for a Demon Barber, Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition, A Bloody Business, Razor's Refrain, photo gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
Length: 111 minutes
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