Sweeney! [1977]

This gripping version of the notorious legend of a murderous barber throws out all the melodrama of the popular Sondheim musical. Instead, this BBC drama of Sweeney Todd treats the antihero as realistically as possible, with compelling results. After spending most of his childhood in the brutal Newgate prison, Sweeney Todd (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast) becomes a reputable barber--but when he finds a vicious prison guard in his barber's chair, Todd can't keep himself from slitting the man's throat. From there, his bloodthirst grows compulsive, particularly after his life becomes entangled with a younger married woman, Mrs. Lovett (buxom Essie Davis, Girl with a Pearl Earring), whose pie shop begins receiving gifts of unspecified meat... Sweeney Todd skillfully weaves the most popular elements of the legend into a plausible story, adding in sardonic humor, nihilistic philosophy, and a few gruesome twists that will be appreciated by anyone with a taste for the macabre. Winstone's performance turns Todd into a sympathetic figure--without excusing or lessening his crimes. All in all, an excellent version of the story, well-produced, cleverly written, and cleanly directed. (The Director's Cut apparently includes a bit more gore than was in the original broadcast.) Also featuring David Warner (who played Jack the Ripper in Time After Time). --Bret Fetzer

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