Sing for your supper

Tim Burton's Gothic revenge tragedy is a treat for eyes and ears alike

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (18) dir: Tim Burton

Pussyfooting was elevated to an art form recently by the makers of the trailer for Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who went to great lengths to conceal the genre of this peculiar film. It seems a shame to undo their ingenious work, so I will say only that the dialogue in Sweeney Todd is not so much spoken as delivered harmoniously to an orchestral accompaniment - very much like singing, in fact. And when Todd (Johnny Depp) describes 18th-century London as "a hole in the earth like a great black pit . . . filled with people who are filled with shit", it's not that different from one of Travis Bickle's rants against New York in Taxi Driver, only now you can hum along.

But who are we kidding? From the moment Depp lurches into shot and croons, "There's nah place like Lahndan," in a voice that could land him a gig as an Anthony Newley tribute act, there's no avoiding what this film is. Todd, the barber formerly known as Benjamin Barker, is imprisoned for 15 years by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who bangs him up in order to have his wicked way with Todd's wife. Upon his return to London, he discovers that his beloved has killed herself, and that Turpin now plans to marry Todd's teenage daughter, who was just a baby when he was sent down.

He revives his old business above a pie-shop owned by Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), and deals niftily with a fellow barber, Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), who threatens to expose his true identity. After that first kill, Todd slices his way through half of London with a cut-throat razor in preparation for Turpin. Mrs Lovett in turn grinds up the corpses for her meat pies, a concept that doesn't sound so outlandish in these days of Heston Blumenthal. It's a nasty end for Todd's customers, but only slightly more terrifying to me than visiting modern salons and calculating how to distribute the tip between the hairdresser, the assistant who gives you a scalp massage and the one who brings you a chai latte and a three-month-old copy of FHM.

If the tale has a soapy and inconsequential tenor, the director Tim Burton and the composer Stephen Sondheim (who wrote the original stage musical) provide the ballast. Burton's freak-show sensibility can bolster the most ephemeral conceits: virtually nothing happened in his signature work, Edward Scissorhands, another story of a raggedy-haired misfit with an attachment to blades, but the picture's alternative universe was so deliriously imagined by Burton that it provided nourishment enough. The same applies here - the camera swoops through clouds of smog, lingering over Dante Ferretti's gorgeously decayed production design, which reeks of mildew.

One advantage of the musical format is that it lends gusto to a story that is lavishly violent but oddly bereft of conflict. Sondheim's compositions are intricately constructed, with melodies that head off in one direction before a last-minute left-turn or U-turn; they are so diverting that you scarcely notice that Todd's quest for vengeance meets few obstacles, least of all from the ineffectual Turpin.

Yet while it can feel stalled as a piece of storytelling, Sweeney Todd represents progress for the musical. The trend in modern assaults on the genre, as in Chicago or Moulin Rouge, has been towards chopping up the shots to achieve a berserk energy. There is plenty of carving in Sweeney Todd, but it's all done in the barber's chair rather than the editing suite. When Todd and Mrs Lovett enjoy a waltz around the pie-shop, the romance of the occasion only enhanced by the fact that she is holding a rolling pin and he is brandishing a cleaver, it's an exotic joy to be able to savour the scene without constant directorial interference.

Depp and Bonham Carter, who resemble macabre his'n'her rag dolls, are as enchanting a pair of mass-murderers as you could hope to meet, and if Sweeney Todd leaves you with a lingering sense of emptiness, that isn't their fault. Most likely, it's because the picture has mapped out almost too well the vicious circle of revenge, which consigns all those within it to the furnace.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer