For today’s entry I’m cheating a bit and doing a television movie but hey I’m slogging through school and haven’t had time to find any other classic films and my recent reviews don’t seem to be generating as much traffic as when I go older so…tv movie it is! But this isn’t just any television movie. It’s the 1982 filmed performance, courtesy of PBS’ Great Performances, of Sweeney Todd starring Angela Lansbury! TCM has been doing a Lansbury retrospective and I’ve never seen her in the iconic role of Mrs. Lovett that she originated in 1979 but now I have! I’ve seen the 2007 Johnny Depp/Tim Burton version and the odd, dark 2006 narrative film but this is my first taste of its Broadway incarnation. It’s just as fun, bloody, and beautiful as I expected and actually fixed the problems I had with the 2007 film (as expected).
Sweeney Todd (George Hearn) aka Benjamin Barker, has returned after being wrongfully imprisoned in Australia by the evil Judge Turpin (Edmund Lyndeck). Upon his return he meets failing piemaker Mrs. Lovett (Angela Lansbury) and finds out his wife has died, the victim of Judge Turpin’s lust, and his young daughter Johanna (Betsy Joslyn) is now Turpin’s ward. Returning to life as a barber who slits the throats of those who have wronged him and turning them into meat pies for Mrs. Lovett, Todd becomes obsessed with getting revenge on Judge Turpin.
The best thing about the Great Performances’ series is how you instantly feel like you’re watching this on stage! There’s nothing here that dates the movie from 1982 except for how young Lansbury looks. The feeling of seeing the stage move, the intermission, all of it combines to give you the theater experience from your own home. With that, the singing of the actors is just astounding. Depp tried too hard to be a rocker in the 2007 version and Hearn has a great operatic, Broadway voice. Lansbury is sweet, hilarious, and gorgeous as the manipulative Mrs. Lovett, a far cry from the lackluster performance by Helena Bonham Carter in the Burton version.
I think what I enjoyed most was the relationship between sailor Anthony (Cris Groenendaal) and Johanna. In the 2007 version the two had no chemistry or characterization. Anthony came off as some bizarre stalker singing songs about stealing a girl. In this version their romance is still campy in a loveable Sondheim way but it doesn’t come off as bizarre or incomplete. The song “Kiss Me,” which isn’t in the 2007 film, restored how you’re supposed to feel about these two characters as they’re planning a dangerous escape and all Anthony can think of is making out with Johanna.
The performances are epic, the story is timeless, and its presented in its complete form. I still enjoy Burton’s take, but seeing this version makes me find more to nitpick about the other one.
Also be sure to go back to the homepage and read today’s secondary post about the upcoming things you’ll be seeing on this site!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.