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In Brief: "The Tale of Sweeney Todd"

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And you thought Gandhi was a vegetarian! Ben Kingsley returns with a vengeance worthy of John the Savage. Much as I’d have imagined that yet another version of The Tale of Sweeney Todd (Sunday, April 19; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; Showtime) would be at best inadvisable, Kingsley as the Fleet Street barber whose close shaves turn wealthy patrons into meat pies is a class-war wonder to behold. Since he doubles as a dentist -- and triples as a wig-curler, and quadruples setting broken bones -- it’s a mystery why he hasn’t improved the atrocious teeth of Mrs. Lovett (Joanna Lumley, in a flamboyant departure from her randy flounce in Absolutely Fabulous). But maybe bad teeth are an agreed-upon semiotic signal in any meditation on the English caste system in the unbrave old world.

Anyway, Kingsley and Lumley have a high old time converting the plutocratic likes of a Peter Woodthorpe into snacks, till an American insurance investigator, Campbell Scott, arrives in Dickensian London looking for some missing diamonds, falls in love like a film noir patsy with the winsome wench at the local pub (Selina Boyack, who just happens to be Sweeney’s ward), discovers in St. Dunstan’s crypt a finger with a ring on it, and finds himself tumbled down a coal chute into a cellar where human corpses hang from hooks like so many pink candidates for spongiform encephalopathy. I see that I haven’t mentioned Charlie (Sean O’Flanagan), the 12-year-old mute who should really have been treated better by an employer as sensitized as Todd to underclass oppression and resentment. Even more of a surprise than Kingsley’s performance is that director John Schlesinger, so very serious in movies like Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man, would have so much fun with this blackest of humors. I can’t think of a nicer present on the occasion of the 150th birthday of The Communist Manifesto.


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