Some say he's fictional. Others swear his notoriety and crimes are based in truth. Whatever the case may be, the legendary "demon barber" of Fleet Street has become quite a post-modern icon. There have been movies made of his exploits (at least five by last count) a Tony Award winning musical (from Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim) and, currently, Tim Burton has once again teamed up with Johnny Depp to adapt said song and dance show into a big screen blockbuster. One of the more interesting attempts at the story remains a 2006 TV movie from Britain featuring Ray Winstone and Essie Davis. Abandoning previous versions to focus on the more human, and heartbreaking, side of the couple's crime spree, it's a very unusual take on the subject and the individuals involved. Now, thanks to the digital domain, we have a chance to see how this incarnation of the infamous slasher holds up. The answer is quite well, surprisingly.
Sweeney Todd is known all over London as the best barber in the city. He caters to the elite and the empowered, drawing his finally honed straight razor across their privileged faces with expertise and ease. One day, triggered by his memories of a childhood spent in prison, Todd cuts the throat of a local jailer. Galled by his crime, the torn man dismembers the body and throws it in the river. Feeling strangely reinvigorated and empowered, Todd continues with his booming business, which also includes removing the occasional bullet from Sir John Fielding's favorite police officer, Matthew Payne. The beleaguered barber also takes a fancy to Mrs. Nellie Lovett, a baker at a local pie shop. When he realizes that she is married to an abusive man, he plots to do away with him. Finally free, Todd helps Lovett set up a business next door to his. It gives him the perfect dumping off point for the customers he is killing. Unbeknownst to Lovett, her caring neighbor is carving up his clientele, giving her the meat for her incredibly popular pastries. When her wanton ways result in a horrid case of syphilis, Lovett grows gravely ill. But she becomes even sicker when she learns of her part in this cannibalistic cabal. It will be up to Todd to keep her in line, less his crimes be exposed and he is sent to the gallows.
It must be hard for any filmmaker to find something fresh in the story of Sweeney Todd. While many people may be unaware of the specifics, they have the basic creepshow concepts down pat: murderous barber, slitting the throats of random patrons; body parts carved up and given over to the reliable Ms. Lovett, owner of the MEAT pie shop next door; before long, all of London is praising these indescribably tasty pastries, with Todd acting the part of butcher to Lovett's conspiratorial cooking. So when approaching this time honored tale, one has to be cognizant of the elements fans will be looking for, while avoiding the pitfalls that can come from such an over-familiarity with the subject matter. Luckily, this BBC production just manages to make do. Granted, it's far more graphic than other depictions, and approaches both characters from a strangely psychosexual angle, but thanks to an intelligent script by first time screenwriter Joshua St. Johnston and amiable direction from David Moore (The Forsythe Saga, Rebus), what could have been another stagnant serial killer story turns into something quite compelling. Thanks to both the acting and narrative novelty, a famous urban legend almost lives again...almost.
Ray Winstone, who many may remember as a part of Jack Nicholson's mobster crew in The Departed (or better yet, as Captain Stanley in the marvelous Aussie Western The Proposition), has a completely unique bead on his version of Todd. Instead of making him a flamboyant freak (as the Stephen Sondheim musical does) or a straight ahead exterminating angel (almost every other version), the big, burly actor imposes a surreal emotional exile on the character. His version of Todd is a humble, almost holy man who views his barbering as redemption for years he spent incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit. Make no mistake about it, his soft spoken artisan is a screaming loon inside, but Winstone only lets the maniac out intermittently. It makes his concept of the killer all the more intriguing. Similarly, Essie Davis' Mrs. Lovett is not the doddering old crone that won Angela Landsbury a well-deserved Tony decades ago. Instead, she's an outright whore, a woman so desperate for affection that she sleeps with anyone who shows her the slightest bit of kindness. With bosom heavy and face open and inviting, she's a harlot with a heart of dough-covered suet. Required to spend the last half of the film in a disgustingly syphilitic state, it's a brave performance and adds yet another intriguing dimension to the tale.
Still, it does take a bit of getting used to, especially when the murders play a distant second to all the interpersonal exploration going on. Seems like every time he turns around, Todd is running ramshackle into his past. The agonizing pain these memories impose drive him to killing, and we can usually tell when this full service barber (he also offers surgical and medical treatment) is about to go garroting. Winstone allows his puffy face to go all flush, and soon the tears of terror are rolling down his rotund cheeks. Lovett is not quite so deep. She appears dedicated to use her always available feminine wiles to get whatever she wants, and her last minute transformation into a callous co-conspirator seems a little out of place. So does her desire to avoid potential punishment and have Todd take her life. We are supposed to feel the final release of all the pent up passion between the characters in this over the top scene, but the lack of a focused familiarity between the pair keeps the waterworks from welling up. Still, with an excellent supporting cast (including David Warner and Tom Hardy) and a nice amount of blood and guts (there are a couple of very gory murders among the off screen killings) Sweeney Todd: The Director's Cut is a straight razor slice above the usual Demon Barber derivativeness. While not perfect, it has a certain squalid charm.
Presented by Acorn Media in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the visual elements of Sweeney Todd: The Director's Cut, are absolutely fabulous. Victorian London looks so grimy and grotesque that you can practically smell the settling sewage, and many of the interior scenes have a claustrophobic air to them. The colors used here are earthy and muted, which makes the bloodletting that much more effective. Overall, it's a fine digital treatment of an inventive television presentation.
If there is a single downside to the technical elements of this release, it's the creative decision to have the entire cast whisper most of their dialogue. Winstone is the chief offender, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix barely able to pick up many of his meaningful monologues. Oddly enough, its not the musical score that undercuts the conversations, nor is it the frequent 'city on fire' ambience. It simply appears that director Moore let his actors understate their lines, resulting in the occasional need to revert to the remote control.
Sadly, aside from a collection of filmographies and an insert essay on the continuing Todd legend, there are no other bonus features offered on this DVD. In particular, it would have been nice to hear what St. Johnston and Moore had to say about the changes they made in the traditional version of the tale. Also, Winstone is an actor who deserves a chance to defend and describe his interesting acting choices here. Without this bit of added content, we are left wondering about why it was necessary to remake this material in the first place.
Early buzz from the UK sets has Johnny Depp lining up for a trip to the Academy podium come Oscar '08. Indeed, word from Stephen Sondheim (who had some role in approving the casting, at least from a musical standpoint) has the iconic actor delivering 'the performance of a lifetime'. In the long litany of song styling Todds (Len Cariou, George Hearn), Depp has a hard act to follow. It is perhaps time to add Ray Winstone's name to that list – at least from a serious thespian point of view. He is very good in the role, and along with Essie Davis's disturbing take on Mrs. Lovett, elevates Sweeney Todd: The Director's Cut above other well-meaning adaptations. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, anyone looking for a less exploitative, and less sensational view of this time honored story, there is a lot to like about this humanistic approach to the horror legend. Sweeney Todd may not have existed in real life, but in the fictional world of film and other entertainment mediums, his is an intriguing immortality.