"Sweeney Todd: The Director's Cut," a 2006 television production of the classic horror story for the British Broadcasting Corporation, reached these shores as a DVD in 2007. It stars Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast , Beowulf - 1 Disc Edition), in the title role; was written by Joshua St. Johnston and directed by David Moore. As a director's cut, it includes footage not seen in the broadcast - beware, sensitive souls, it's intensely violent. It also boasts a Sweeney Todd background essay, cast filmographies, and, thank goodness, at least in the Acorn release, unadvertised closed captioning: characters in this movie are doing their best to speak early London English. The movie is set in eighteenth century London, where the first, Victorian treatment of this famous horror tale placed it; it runs about an hour and a half. The award-winning Winstone, who is of cockney origins himself, and a former boxer, succeeds in making the demon barber of Fleet Street a believable human being. Essie Davis (Girl With A Pearl Earring), makes Mrs. Lovett into a lusty young woman, more sinned-against than sinning. And the veteran David Warner (Titanic, Tom Jones (1963)), makes his blind police chief Fielding quite credible, and moving. The basic plot, of course, is known to all: in filthy, teeming, unsanitary, unhealthy eighteenth century London, Todd, the expert barber, murders the odd customer, whose flesh turns up in his neighbor Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, making them the delicious toast of London. In this treatment of the material, a substantial backstory has been given Todd, making his actions more explicable: he works and lives in the shadow of the hellhole London prison Newgate, where he grew up as a child, spending twenty years of his life there for a murder committed by his father - it's where he learned his trade. Upon his release, the advent of a brutal Newgate prison guard in his barber's chair sets loose his anger, and murderous impulses. And soon carved up bodies begin appearing in what remains of the once sparkling, pristine Fleet River, now known as the Fleet Ditch. Another quite interesting innovation of the script is to remind us that, in those days, barbers doubled as surgeons: the blood of that trade is what the red stood for in all those old-fashioned barber's red and white striped poles that we occasionally see. As a surgeon, Todd does, of course, see plenty of blood; he also must have a rough and ready knowledge of the human body, sufficient to operate, or to butcher. The plot also gives us a brief homage to the earliest substantial literary treatment of Sweeney Todd, "The String of Pearls," an anonymously authored tale told in serial form in early Victorian days. We have a Mr. Thornhill with a string of beautiful pearls, a major actor in the first treatment. Todd's young boy apprentice continues to be called Tobias, as he first was, and generally still is. Praises be the icky star-crossed young lovers, major, and weakest ingredient of the original tale, are gone. The Sweeney Todd tale may be based on an urban myth, or there may, or may not be a real inspiration to it. Robert L. Mack, in his excellent book on the subject, ( Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), reviewed by me on its subject page, cites to an eighteenth century French newspaper. What is certainly true is the fascinating, sad history of the Fleet River, treated by me, at greater length, in reviewing the Johnny Depp Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. We see the river here, narrowed to the width of a street, hemmed in by structures on both sides; and, briefly, at low tide, displaying a filthy, gruesome river bed. It is bridged here, but it was to be entirely bridged over, covered in wood so that it could be built over, and was so polluted it burst into flames, burning all around it. When the area was eventually rebuilt, the river's legacy was to be all those subterranean tunnels that proved so handy to Todd. Winstone's powerful performance hoists this film well above the ordinary TV movie, though it does lack some of the richness of a film made for theatrical release. But it's an engrossing, and haunting variation on a dark legend of love and murder.
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