Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, 18

Despite the copious blood and guts, Tim Burton's musical is a strangely moral tale

Slit throats, body parts, cannibalism, gore – now that's my idea of a musical. As pessimistic as Jacobean tragedy and as liberal in its blood-letting as Hostel or any such charnel-house romp, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is nevertheless rollicking good fun and, I dare say, an ideal post-Christmas panto for all the family – or it would be if not for the 18 certificate. That seems a bizarre decision by the BBFC since, fountainous though the claret is, you never feel that it's real. In any case, Stephen Sondheim's musical is a profoundly moral work, in which the innocent prevail, the wicked are punished and – well, all right, so a multitude of probably upstanding citizens end up as pie-filling.

Johnny Depp is the barber, unjustly exiled by the wicked judge who debauched his young wife. Returning to London years later – ashen-cheeked and with a white streak slashing across his hair like a lightning bolt of disillusion – Sweeney establishes himself as the quickest razor in town, in a shaving contest with Italian mountebank Pirelli (a show-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen, a popinjay in peacock blue). Sweeney's intent is to slit the throat of Judge Turpin, played by Alan Rickman as a grizzle-chopped voluptuary. But the barber's new ally and would-be inamorata, pie-baker Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), has better ideas for how both their businesses can thrive. They may be an evil pair, but they're pioneering in their way: such radical innovation in British cuisine would not be seen again till Heston Blumenthal.

Every frame tells you that Sweeney Todd is a Tim Burton film, although he significantly plays down his fondness for sugary-sour, nursery-tale Gothic: what makes this film so blackly amusing is that it's not played for laughs. The Dickensian London designed by Dante Ferretti has a skyline of hellishly billowing chimneys; the images, predominantly bled of colour by the director of photography Dariusz Wolski, resemble engravings in a penny dreadful. There's a splash of horror-film history too: the ship on which Sweeney returns looms out of the Thames fog, resembling the vessel that carried Dracula in Nosferatu.

Burton and co occasionally break up the colour scheme a bit, notably when Mrs Lovett dreams of a happy, respectable future, sunlit seaside walks and all. Seeing her in bright frills and Sweeney in scowling monochrome, out picnicking, you suspect that Burton is having a little joke about his and his leading lady's home life.

You may find Helena Bonham Carter a little leanly glamorous, if you expect Mrs Lovett to be as matronly as Angela Lansbury, who created the role. But while her fragile singing voice sometimes struggles beneath the torrents of Sondheim's wordplay, Bonham Carter is briskly funny, putting a larky, flirtatious spin on her rag-doll demeanour. She's extremely good in the poignant but sinister scene where the urchin Toby declares his devotion to her: a tear runs down Mrs Lovett's cheek at the recognition that he's doomed, but what's a businesswoman to do?

Depp's Oscar nomination has surprised some, who find his performance a little, pardon me, bloodless. It's not at all: just glowering and introverted, as befits the role of an embittered monomaniac. Can Depp sing? Not strictly: his delivery is a half-speaking Cockney snarl, in the line of David Bowie and Anthony Newley, but he makes it his own, thick with malice and, when necessary, soaring nicely on the end notes.

Along with the familiar faces – including Timothy Spall at his juiciest – there are some fine unknowns. Jamie Campbell Bower is candidly floppy as the naive sailor Anthony, and young Ed Sanders is a magnificent find as Toby: hearing him bellow "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir", you can't help thinking of Jack Wild's Artful Dodger, given the song's pastiche of Lionel Bart oompah.

The staging emphasises a chamber-drama feel, but if you're expecting the Brechtian artifice of the theatrical productions, be prepared for something closer to the lurid realism of Hammer horror. Sondheimites should generally approve, although the recurring "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is an ill-judged loss.

Otherwise, the film honours the songs, and Jonathan Tunick's lush orchestrations. We get the full beauty of Sondheim's ironies: death hovering about Turpin's chops as he swoons to the erotic ecstasy of "Pretty Women"; Lovett entranced by the shimmer of the music, and of Sweeney's blades. Smart, elegant and more adult than you expect from Burton, Sweeney Todd is a grisly – and gristly – delicacy.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum