I first encountered Sweeney Todd on HBO back in the early 80's when they broadcast the Stephen Sondheim Broadway play featuring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. It was a wonderful production, dark gruesome yet funny and light all at the same time. Winning a trunk full of Tony awards and running for 557 performances, it was only natural that Hollywood would come knocking. Sondheim doesn't sell the rights to his plays easily however and it wasn't until director Tom Burton talked to him that the movie got off the ground (after being talked about for 25 years!) Burton's film version, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, successfully brings the play to the big screen, adapting the story wonderfully. This Blu-ray version is a joy to watch with wonderful sound and an amazing image, it's a great disc all around.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is back in London after a fifteen-year absence. He had been a successful barber with a beautiful wife and year old daughter. But then his life fell apart. A crooked barrister, Judge Turpin, was infatuated with Barker's young wife, and had the barber imprisoned on some trumped up charges so that he could have the fair woman as his own. Barker was given a life sentence and sent to Botany Bay. But he managed to escape, and as the play begins, he has made his way back to England where he takes the name Sweeney Todd. He rents out his old second floor barbershop from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the widow who runs the bakery downstairs. She needs the money as her shop has the distinction of serving the worst meat pies in all of London.
When Sweeney learns that his wife is dead and child is a ward of Judge Turpin's, he loses his grip on sanity. He vows vengeance on the judge and the man who helped send him away. Sweeney has other things to contend with first though. A man that recognizes him from years ago tries to blackmail him, but Sweeney quickly slits his throat. Much to Sweeney's horror, Mrs. Lovett discovers what he has done. Instead of being aghast, she points out to Sweeney that meat is very expensive. ("And them pussycats is quick.") It would be a shame to let so much good protein go to waste, and what are they to do with the body in any case? So the two hatch a plot to grind up the victim and put him into Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.
Soon her pies are the toast of the town. With business booming, the first victim doesn't last long. So Sweeney starts killing, not for vengeance, but to fill Mrs. Lovett's larder. The barber hasn't forgotten about the Judge and the others who ruined his life, and as much as Mrs. Lovett would like him to forget about revenge and settle down with her, Sweeney can't. He will have his revenge at any cost.
There have been some subtle changes from the stage musical that may disappoint some viewers familiar with the original piece. Transplanting the script from stage to screen director Tim Burton gets rid of the chorus and their wonderful song "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd". It's a painful but necessary omission since the film as having a chorus pop up would be too theatrical and change the tone of the film.
One thing that was a little surprising is that the dark humor of the play has been downplayed a good deal. Burton is a master at black comedy, and I was expecting him to accent the grisly humor that inhabits the original production, but instead he doesn't. Don't get me wrong, it's still a funny film in parts, but the laughs aren't accented as much. One of the comic bits that makes it through in tack is when Todd and Mrs. Lovette are discussing discuss the advantages of using human flesh in her meat pies. Sondheim's lyrics are both grim and humorous at the same time:
-Have a little priest.
-Is it really good?
-Sir, it's too good, at least.
Then again they don't commit sins of the flesh,
So it's pretty fresh.
Freeing the production from the stage, Burton was able to recreate London at the beginning of the Industrial Age with all its dirt and grime and corruption. He does a wonderful job meshing CGI images of the skyline with sets of the buildings themselves, making the town really come to life. Burton was also able to add sets, most notably for the wonderful "By the Sea" where Mrs. Lovette imagines that she and Sweeney run off to the shore, live in a quaint cottage and eventually marry. While she sings and dances around, Todd stares off into space planning his revenge. It's a very amusing scene and works very well in the film.
The cast was excellent all around. Johnny Depp is a wonderful actor, and I was sure he could bring the character of Todd to life. This is a very difficult role, having to appear sympathetic and evil at the same time. You alternately feel sorry for the unjustly imprisoned man and winch at the cruelty that he can inflict on others. I wasn't sure how Depp do with the singing, but I needn't have worried. While I wish his voice was a little deeper, he was able to pull of the songs seemingly effortlessly. He was able to brood and sing at the same time and he deserves all of the critical accolades that he's received.
I thought Helena Bonham Carter was perfect in the role as Mrs. Lovette. She pulled off the lower class accent without any trouble and was able to make her character really shine. Mrs. Lovette is a little frightened of Todd, but attracted to him at the same time and Carter was able to play this without it seeming contradictory.
Even the lesser roles were superbly cast. Sacha Baron Cohen is nearly unrecognizable as Signor Adolfo Pirelli and plays the part with just the right amount of bravado and panache. Jayne Wisener is enchanting as Todd's daughter Joanna. Though the part is small, her voice is amazing and she really looks the part. I'm fairly surprised that this role hasn't led to bigger and better roles. Alan Rickman, who is one of my favorite actors, is also splendid as Judge Turpin. He's evil and petty and yet Rickman makes him seem human when he talks about his ward, Joanna. He's also able to hold his own in scenes with Depp, something that not every actor can do.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The film comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track that sounds very good. The music is especially impressive with the low end being full but not boomy and the highs being precise and clear. Jayne Wisener's solo really shines through with the high end of her voice (which is very high) not being clipped. The only complaint I have is with the sound design rather than the reproduction. The levels for the dialog is a little lower than that of the singing, and sometimes that, with the lower class accents that everyone used, made it difficult to understand what was being said. It wasn't a significant problem, only a few lines here and there that were mumbled, but it did exist. I think this comes from the musical tradition of boosting the vocals to draw attention to the musical numbers and not anything that was done while mastering the Blu-ray. This track also makes it evident that the songs were recorded in a studio and then looped over the images. Aside from the lips not being exactly in synch for an instant (when Todd is challenging Pirelli for example) there's also a subtle aural difference between the sound of the dialog stage and the recording studio.
None of these should cause anyone to avoid this disc since the audio is really excellent. The full soundstage is used to good effect, and the music will really send a chill up your spine.
Simply put the 1080p AVC encoded 1.85:1 image looks splendid. (That's simply?) I was very impressed with the way the film looked. The whole movie, with the exception of two sequences, is dark, grimy, and dull. The image is filled with blacks, grays, and dark browns but this Blu-ray disc differentiates between these subtle shades very well without posterization. Grain wasn't a problem, which is a pleasant surprise with all of the dark scenes, and digital noise was non-existent. The contrast with the two colorful scenes is drastic, reminding one of when Dorothy first arrives in Oz. There the bright yellows, reds, and greens are strong and deep.
The level of detail is excellent too. You can see the texture of the floor on Mrs. Lovette's counter top as she's rolling out pastry shells for her meat pies, and you can see the edge on Sweeney's 'friends' not only glint in the light, but you can see where the metal starts to tapper.
On the digital side of things, the disc looks equally impressive. There is no blocking in the smoke coming out of the chimneys and no aliasing as the camera pans over the skyline of London. Overall this is a very impressive looking disc.
This disc sports a full line of extras, all presented in HD with the exception of the press conferance:
-Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd: A 25-minute behind-the-scenes look at the collaboration of Tim Burton with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. There's footage from rehearsals, the recording sessions, and interviews with the main cast as well as the supporting players.
- Sweeney Todd Press Conference: Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Richard Zanuck talk with the press. They're all very upbeat and often funny and this is a lot of fun to watch.
- Sweeney Todd is Alive: The Real History of The Demon Barber: This docu looks at the origins of the legend and asks if there was a real "Demon Barber". This is an interesting companion to the film.
- Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: Sondheim talks about the origins of the musical, working with Burton, and the final product. He liked the film and endorses it nicely.
- Sweeney's London: Another documentary, this time looking at what London was really like at the beginning of the industrial age.
- The Making of Sweeney Todd: A generic fluff piece.
- Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition: a docu that looks at both the Guignol genre and the theater that gave the style its name.
- Designs for a Demon Barber: The designers for the film talk about how the achieved the unique look of the film.
- A Bloody Business: A look at the special effects used in the film to simulate the slashing of throats. This was pretty interesting.
- Moviefone Unscripted with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp: The two answer more questions from reporters.
- The Razor's Refrain: a photo gallery of production stills set to music from the film.
- Photo Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
While it is distinctly different from the Broadway play, Tim Burton has successfully brought Sondheim's award-winning play to the silver screen. There isn't as much humor, and more blood, but this film captures the spirit of the play and reproduces it delightfully. The Blu-ray disc is wonderful with an amazing audio track, a great picture and a wide variety of extras. That makes it easy to give this disc a Highly Recommended rating.