Tim Burton’s grim adaptation of Sweeny Todd is probably one of the grimmest musicals ever produced by a major studio. The film could best be described as a cross between Chicago and Eastern Promises, a combination one doesn’t instantly expect to see. The film is based on a Stephen Sondheim musical that debuted on Broadway in 1979. I know very little about this or many other Broadway musicals, so this was my first experience with Sweeney Todd.
The opens as the title character (Johnny Depp) returns to London after a fifteen year exile in Australia. Todd, who was known as Benjamin Baker before his Exile, was a barber married to a woman named Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly). This marriage had been cut short by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) who sent Baker away and kidnapped their daughter. After Baker returned he quickly found an old friend Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who informs him that since he departed his wife had killed herself and his daughter is still living with the judge who caused all this trouble. Todd vows to have his revenge, and to do it he plans to lure the judge to his barber shop where he plans to cut his throat. In the meantime Todd and Lovett decide to rejuvenate Lovett’s meat pie restaurant with a newly found source of free meat.
Johnny Depp’s ability to create characters seemed particularly apt with this project. The art on the Sweeny Todd playbill make this look like the part Depp was born to play. However I really wish Depp had streached himself for the role a little more than he did. As it stands his Sweeney Todd character is little more than an extention of his Edward Scissorhands character. Depp has the same blank face on through most of the film, I would have liked a little more emotion from him; there is little of the rage her that one would expect from someone bent on revenge. Depp’s singing voice would probably not impress a Broadway musical vet, but it works for the movie. He joins a long tradition of male leads like Rex Harrington, James Cagney, and Yul Brennor who can’t really sing, but can fool the audience into thinking they can.
Helena Bonham Carter also looks like a perfect fit for the part of Mrs. Lovett, but she has been criticized for her singing voice much more harshly than Depp. I however do not share that sentiment, I thought Carter’s singing voice sounded fine, although she did sound a lot better when partnered with other singers than when she sang alone. Alan Rickman is always great as a villain and this is no exception, his musical role is not as extensive as either Depp or Carter, but he sings his one song pretty well.
Also present is Sasha Baron Cohen, who has a small role as a flamboyant con artist who has a barber duel with Sweeny Todd. Cohen is appropriately over the top here, but his performance is ultimately in support of a weak character. Cohen’s segments simply strike me as an attempt at humor that wasn’t very funny. The young assistant of Cohen’s character, Tobais (Ed Sanders), eventually take’s on a larger role in the film. Sanders’ singing voice actually sounds better trained than a lot of the star’s, but it also didn’t really fit the scene’s as well; it sounded a lot more like it was recorded in a studio and dubbed in than it did with the other actors. The final addition to the cast is a young sailor named Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), who seems like the romantic lead from a normal musical, he makes quite a contrast to the rest of these throat slashing freaks.
The film’s music is probably its most compelling element, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the songs here but I was pleasantly surprised. While the film’s orchestration was good but it seemed fairly typical of Broadway music, Sondheim’s lyrics on the other hand were extremely catchy. The film was full of catch, fast paced and well rhymed lyrical exchanges that were consistently fun to keep track of. The film’s story was really told through lyrics, this isn’t the type of musical where the songs are interruptions in the film’s narrative flow, but rather this is a musical where the story and its underlying mood are entrenched in the music. Unfortunately, I was consistently annoyed by the film’s sound mix which placed too much emphasis on orchestration and frequently made following the lyrics a chore. This wasn’t bad enough to kill the songs but it was a constant irritation.
Tim Burton’s design skills are in full swing here; this twisted vision of Victorian London is consistently fun to watch. The film mixes the city-scapes of Batman with the dark, gothic turn of the century revisionism of the under-rated Sleepy Hollow. This is a very dark film both in its tone and photography. The cinematography uses de-saturated colors throughout and goes to great lengths to contrast this throughout. One particular highlight of the design and photography on display here is a sequence where Mrs. Lovett fantasizes of an escape from this dreary world, but it’s clear that there’s no place for the chronically depressed Sweeney Todd in this fantasy world.
Juxtaposed with all the blacks and blues of the films normal color pallet is the extremely bright and jarring red bursts of blood during the murder scenes. Make no mistake; this is an extremely violent and somewhat depraved film. There are murder scenes here that would make Wes Craven blush. Not only are there violent murder scenes but there’s also a disgusting subplot about a business that learned to get raw materials from the Leatherface school of small business. None of this material would be overly shocking to the average horror veteran like me, but to a mainstream musical audience it may be very shocking. One wonders what the audience of this film is. Musical fans would be disgusted by the gore, and horror fans would be turned off by the music. The likely audience for this will probably be emo kids, which is unfortunate because this film does deserve better than to be lumped in with that retarded sub-culture.
While Stephen Sondheim’s music is the film’s major strength, his story is one of its biggest weaknesses. The film’s storyline really isn’t that different from any revenge film, and by the film’s anti-climactic finale I couldn’t help but ask myself “what’s the point of all this?” The film tells us nothing we haven’t already heard about the nature of revenge and none of the characters are as complex as the story thinks they are. The film, despite its elaborate sets, is oddly stage bound. Most of the action takes place in Lovett’s hellish restaurant/barbershop and the film’s script seems to expect the evil judge to come to this crappy set rather than having Todd seek him out in the larger world of London that’s been set up.
Despite my reservations about the film’s ultimate storyline, I’m still going to hesitantly recommend the film because of the grade-A Burton atmosphere and visual styling. The story is fairly empty, but I enjoyed the film when I experienced it in the moment and there is some real brilliance in the music even if the songs are poorly mixed. This is definitely worth seeing for fans of Burton and/or Sondheim, just don’t expect the story to blow you away.
*** out of four