Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) / Musical-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for graphic bloody violence
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Jamie Campbell Bower, Ed Sanders, Timothy Spall, Jayne Wisener, Sacha Baron Cohen, Laura Michelle Kelly
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: John Logan (based on the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical)
London barber Benjamin Barker (Depp, Pirates 3) gets put away for life in Australia on trumped-up charges by Judge Turpin (Rickman, Harry Potter 5), who has an eye for Barker's adoring wife (Kelly) and wants her for himself. Many years pass and Barker escapes, making his way back home to London, now under the name of Sweeney Todd. He soon meets a widowed meat pie-maker named Mrs. Lovett (Carter, Wallace & Gromit), who informs Todd that his wife was poisoned and her daughter (Wisener) now a kept ward of Turpin. Todd vows retribution and sets his sights on getting Turpin into his barber's chair for a little ear-to-ear slicing, and the hopes of getting his daughter Johanna out of her captivity. After a close shave (literally), Turpin worms his way out, but Todd's bloodlust grows to the point where he is disgusted with the entire town, hatching a scheme where he can lure in men to their doom, sparking an interest in Mrs. Lovett's now more delicious meat pies.
Sweeney Todd marks the sixth collaboration between actor Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes), and like most of their joint efforts, it proves to be one of Burton's best. Given the director's penchant for lavish art and set design, as well as his thirst for dark and sinister themes, he is a natural as a visionary of bringing the macabre tale to life in a visually-stunning yet appropriately grotesque fashion. His only weakness is that, try as he might, Burton isn't a great director of live-action musicals (two of his previous musicals had been animated artfests -- A Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, while the live-action Charlie and the Chocolate Factory suffered from annoying musical numbers), and he has cast mostly professional actors (and amateur singers), which can make it hard on the ears for those used to the Sondheim stage production. The singing is passable, though, and if you are intrigued by the slasher storyline, this is a creative and visually compelling piece that should be commended for its unique approach in design, if it falls short in the music and staging.
Although a musical, "Sweeney Todd" seems to one of those plays that has always transcended just musical fans, mostly because it is dark and disturbing. Some people don't like musicals, not because they are opposed to song and dance, but because they tend to be light and fluffy to the point where their sugary sweetness proves unpalatable for those not taken in easily by unabashed cheeriness. There's nothing cheery about Sweeney Todd, as it plays like a very adult predecessor to "A Series of Unfortunate Events", where life will always be grim and happy endings seem eternally out of reach. Misery and murder are generally a tough sell, but the thriller/horror aspects should be enough to get people fired up for a musical when all other efforts have failed.
As impressively mounted as Burton's vision is, I am reticent to rave wildly about Sweeney Todd despite a recommendation. Part of my reluctance to gush comes from the fact that, with due respect to Sondheim and his fans, I just don't find the music selection to be to my liking. Not all of the songs from the 1979 musical production made it into the film, but those that did are often played multiple times, and even though repetitive, they never transcend into elevating the mood above and beyond the story we see on the screen. I don't know that I would have enjoyed the film any less had the actors merely spoken prose dialogue aloud matter-of-factly. Granted, the power of the songs may be tied into the power of the singers to deliver them, so I'll hold my criticism of the songs to just how thy were used in the film. Even so, there are story elements that are easy to surmise (the significance of the beggar woman won't surprise many), but given the classic tale status, it gets a pass for not containing a well-kept sense of mystery.
Sweeney Todd is worth seeing for another fine Depp character performance, Burton's penchant for gorgeously hideous environs, and an enduringly tragic story that grows more so with each artist's revision. Despite the murder and mayhem witnessed throughout, we never quite get as intrigued and emotionally connected as we probably should be given the harrowing circumstances and the tragic characterizations. Again, perhaps really great musical renditions could have moved us more, but we'll take the director's auditory weaknesses if we can have his considerable visual strengths.
©2008 Vince Leo