The View From Here

First Look -- Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd

Michael Bonner

Watching TV over the Christmas and New Year period, chances are you might have caught Johnny Depp in a number of films. I'm pretty sure I spotted all three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies spread out across various terrestrial and satellite channels, plus the overlooked Secret Window and -- a personal favourite -- Finding Neverland, a very moving take on the relationship between author JM Barrie and the children who inspired him to write Peter Pan.

In a way, these films are emblematic of the Depp's dualistic approach to his movies. In Pirates, he's performing; in Window and Neverland, he's acting.

Sweeney Todd, his sixth collaboration with director Tim Burton, falls into the former camp. You have to forgive me, I should say, if I'm fairly broad in my assessment here -- I saw it way before Christmas, but have been under the cosh of one of these embargos that forbids me from writing about it, under pain of death, until now.

It's a big, brash turn, full of swagger and brio, well suited to Burton's extravagant Gothic melodrama from Stephen Sondheim's musical. Depp's Sweeney is a serial killing barber whose victims are turned into pies by his accomplice Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Necks are slit, large quantities of blood slosh across the screen and a number of jolly songs are sung along the way, often in chirpy Cockernee accents.

It's a faintly ludicrous proposition -- but, admittedly, no more so than the idea of a lonely inventor building himself a son but dying before he could complete him, leaving a pair of giant shears where his arms should be.

In fact, Burton pretty much lets himself go here, the whole thing having a rather gleefully demented feel to it. It's not quite Herschell Gordon Lewis or Lucio Fulci, but it's pretty grisly stuff all the same; thick arterial blood flying in crimson arcs, human flesh baked into pies, that kind of thing.

Depp, shrewd as ever, manages to draw pathos out of the Grand Guignol. Deathly pale with panda bear rings round his eyes, Depp's Sweeney is a walking ghost, his life leeched from him by the death of his wife and lost daughter. He's more of a melancholic figure than some zealous, hellbent lunatic out for revenge, despite his early declamation that "They all deserve to die!"

There are, I have to admit, too many songs for me (yes, I do know it's a musical), but Burton and Depp are clearly having great fun here -- in the new issue of UNCUT, Burton explains how he and Depp are "in the same zone from the beginning."

Sweeney might not be Depp's greatest character for Burton (that would be Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood), but the exuberance and grim humour of this spectacle make cohesively for one of their strongest collaborations.

To close allow me this random aside. I see that Depp's scheduled to play American gangster John Dillinger for Michael Mann soon. As a huge fan of both Depp, Mann and John Milius' brilliant version of the Dillinger story (due, largely, to a fantastic performance from Warren Oates), I am extremely excited. Anyway... Sweeney Todd opens in the UK on January 25.


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