Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
reviewed by Enrico Banson
When it was announced that Sweeney Todd would be turned into a film, fans of the show immediately knew that Tim Burton, with his trademark gothic sensibilities is the right director to do it. After all, Tim Burton — like Sondheim — is not for everyone. To some, his movies are cold and impersonal about people who are cold and impersonal. But whether you’re a fan of these two artists or not, seeing the work interpreted is what makes the experience satisfying. So it’s fascinating to see Tim Burton interpret Sondheim’s music through the medium of cinema. It’s a perfect artistic marriage and for that alone it makes seeing the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd worth seeing.
Now the film adaptation of this award-winning gothic musical succeeds for the most part, but sadly falls short of being perfect. Tim Burton’s re-imagining of the classic stage show—a cross between an epic Wagner operetta, and a Hammer horror flick—works because he wisely scaled it down on film. It’s a far more intimate experience without a trace of “Broadway.” He delivers a very dark, scathingly funny movie and it’s gorgeous to look at. The sets by veteran designer Dante Ferretti and costumes by multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood are exceptional. Still, Sweeney Todd truly is a horror film, rooted in Grand Guignol theatrics. It’s scarier than the best horror flicks of recent memory (the Saw franchise included) because it depicts with gut-wrenching emotion and detail the capacity of evil that lurks in each of us—our thirst for justice that can lead to madness. It’s been a long time since a horror movie truly haunted and Sweeney Todd definitely stirred some dormant fears. Isn’t that what art can and should do sometimes?
It’s apparent that Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman follow Sondheim’s lead first, letting the music and the spirit of the show pave their wonderful performances. Depp as the demon barber of Fleet Street is flat-out enjoyable. It’s a bone-chilling moment when Depp’s Sweeney sings to his razor and belts out, “Alas, an extension of my arm.” In that one defining moment of the film, we see Depp who is undoubtedly a gifted actor, breathe life into Sweeney. All of his ideas and choices are embodied in character and in song, meshed into a gratifying performance that you can’t take your eyes off of. It’s no surprise that he could sing (he was in a rock band before) even if his baritone is too thin and grungy to pull it off. Sondheim writes songs that start out seemingly melodic yet soon build up with dissonant key changes and plenty of counter-rhythm and off-kiltered syncopation. Depp makes it work, even in his disturbing duet with Rickman, “Pretty Women.” Alan Rickman’s villainous Judge Turpin is delicious and never one-dimensional. What separates both their performances from the rest of the cast is their complete grasp of their characters. Both Depp and Rickman allow the music, Burton’s succinct direction, and the spirit of the piece to sink deep into their characterizations and choices.
So with a piece as difficult as this, it’s apparent that the root of the problem lies with the casting; choosing actors who truly can handle the schizophrenic nature of the material. With the exception of Depp, Rickman, Timothy Spall’s aide-de-camp role and Laura Michelle Kelly as Sweeney’s wife, the rest seem a bit out of their league. Sweeney Todd is a very difficult show to sing, and watching the actors mangle their way through some of the hardest key changes ever written is like watching a high school football team go up against the New England Patriots. No matter how good you are, you’re not there yet. Singing and music aside, Burton and his players never seem to grasp beyond the subtext. Helena Bonham Carter is terribly miscast as Mrs. Lovett, a role far more demanding on all ends of the spectrum, not just the singing. Her performance is uneven and she never truly nails it, trapped in every deranged heroine character Tim Burton has imagined for her. Mrs. Lovett is a larger-than-life woman. Carter plays her more as a trapped little victim instead of a survivor. It takes guts and confidence to turn men into meat pies and serve it up to the masses. With Carter’s Lovett, I just don’t buy it. The two young lovers Anthony and Johanna played by Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are serviceable, but weightless. Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame provides some comic relief as Sweeney’s competitor Pirelli, a role that’s always been poised to steal the spotlight, even for a few lighthearted moments. But still, his presence is short-lived, literally. There are a few minor quibbles about cut songs, particularly the crowd-pleaser “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” On the plus side, those cut songs still remain as underscoring and surprisingly, this well-worn score sounds like Bernard Hermann at his finest.
At the end of it all, Sweeney Todd is the work of two artists who dare to be different. It’s not for everyone. I’ll admit that it helps to know a little bit about the works of both Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim to truly appreciate it. Perhaps I’m biased. Many (myself included) consider Sondheim as the finest living veteran of his craft. Sondheim—like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein before him—uses music not only to tell the story, but to embody a character. The musical score of Sweeney Todd from the 1979 play to this new film adaptation is a textural work of musical beauty. The score has become a modern classic not only among theatre enthusiasts but music aficionados as well. But that’s expected of Sondheim, whose body of work alone has brought the composer to the highest echelons in the world of music. Tim Burton gives a worthy cinematic interpretation of it, offering perhaps his strongest movie since Ed Wood. Sadly, his cinematic tale is marred by a few of his key players hitting too many wrong notes.
IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Flixster Profile for Sweeney Todd