It feels good to like a Tim Burton movie again. I’ve spent most of the last decade on the outside of Burton’s films, unable to get past his empty stylistic tics and his obsession with fathers, growing more and more convinced that the guy had turned into nothing so much as an imitation of himself, a wax figure suitable for display at Madame Tussuad’s but not for making movies worth seeing more than once. If that many times. But with Sweeney Todd Burton has reconnected with the guy who made Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, making a movie with depth, grace and gory goodness.
Of course it helps that he’s working with stellar material. Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of those Broadway shows that you could convince a Fangoria convention to attend. In the blood soaked musical happily married barber Benjamin Barker is framed and sent off to prison so the evil Judge Turpin can get his hands on Barker’s wife. After fifteen years away Barker returns under the guise of Sweeney Todd, seeking vengeance on the Judge who ruined his life. He hooks up with Mrs. Lovett, the owner of a shitty meat pie shop and together they form a most wicked duo: he kills upper class assholes and she turns their corpses into delicious meat pies to be eaten by the poorer residents of London. Eat the rich indeed.
The consumptive world of early Industrial Age London is a perfect playground for Burton. Everything is gray and grimy, everyone pale and filthy. And a stage show makes a perfect complement for Burton’s own dollhouse stylings – many of Burton’s films feel stagey and overdesigned, but here it works because you should feel like the actors are walking the boards of a stage where the walls just happen to have fallen down and given them more scope and range to live.
Burton and screenwriter John Logan are remarkably faithful to Sondheim’s original show, which actually caused a bit of cognitive dissonance for me when some bits were left out. Burton has opted to excise the lyrics for The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, which is perhaps the best and most rousing number in the show. It seems to come part and parcel for his deletion of any chorus bits; Burton appears to be cool with individuals breaking out into song and even dueting, but he’s not okay with large groups of people singing together. The Ballad serves as a sort of punctuation in the original show, and without it some scenes feel unfinished here – especially [swipe for spoilers] Sweeney’s final vengeance against the Judge. In the show the chorus brings the Ballad back with force, a musical catharsis to match the violent one onstage, but in the film the Judge’s dispatch feels just like the latest in a series of very graphic offings. By the time you’ve sat through a half dozen people getting their throats cut in wet detail, one more carries little weight.
The violence in the film version of Sweeney Todd has gotten a lot of attention. It’s certainly one of the bloodiest mainstream films I can remember – the blood flows in gallons here. Sweeney slices the throats of men while they sit in his barber chair, which has been tricked out to drop the corpses down a chute into the basement. Burton has designed the chair so that the bodies fall head first and each lands three stories below with a sickening (and delightful, if you’re like me) snapping of the neck. It’s a nice one-two punch – the sheer volume of blood, which is what I like to call Dawn of the Dead Red (I’m talking the very bright color of the blood from the original Dawn), makes the killings border on the cartoonish, but the brutality of the corpses landing is a kick in the gut. Interestingly, Burton never makes the meat pies all that gross (well, Mrs. Lovett’s original roach filled recipes are pretty gnarly). There’s a scene where people are flocking to Mrs. Lovett’s shop to unwittingly chow down on the upper class and I kept expecting all sorts of stomach turning tight shots of people chewing gristly human meat. Burton is way more restrained than that.
Burton has once again turned to Johnny Depp to anchor his film. Depp’s a great choice for Sweeney Todd from a marketing point of view – it helps to have one of the most popular and sexiest actors alive playing the role of a madman who only cares about exacting gory vengeance – but a weird choice when you’re actually watching the movie. Depp’s too pretty for the part; I never quite buy him as having been doing hard labor for fifteen years. And he can’t sing, which is sort of a huge problem. I mean, he can hold a tune, and you wouldn’t have any problems if Depp was your vocalist in a game of Rock Band, but he can’t belt the songs out. I’m spoiled by Len Cariou from the original Broadway cast recording, but a number of these songs need to be sung with huge abandon, and Depp can’t pull it off. He can act his way through the role of the bloodthirsty madman with his eyes closed, but he can’t make all of the songs work. In the context of the movie it’s often fine, but as CHUD’s own Jeremy Smith pointed out to me, you wouldn’t want to own this soundtrack, especially because that problem extends to almost the whole cast. Almost none of the actors have singing voices that rankle or annoy (except poor flat Alan Rickman), but they also don’t have any kind of depth to their singing. In a lot of ways the film’s singing actors sound like a very nice high school production of the show. You enjoy the tunes, think that the people onstage are doing a terrific job for a high school auditorium in Joplin Missouri, but there’s no way they would ever make it on Broadway.
There are a couple of singers here – I found Sacha Baron Cohen, singing operatically as Pirelli the rival barber, to be quite great. And the B-story – lovebirds Anthony and Johanna (Sweeney’s now young adult daughter) – is just as annoying in film as it is onstage, but at least the two actors can sing. And props to Burton for seemingly cutting down the number of repetitions of the song Johanna. I don’t know if this doesn’t actually pop up as often in the movie as it did onstage, but I certainly felt pummeled by it less often.
Where I found Johnny Depp to be good but sort of fundamentally unsuited for his role, I found Helena Bonham Carter to be surprisingly great. When her casting was announced I was unimpressed that Burton was once again putting his lady in a major role. And casting two beautiful people in roles meant to be played ugly seemed like a bad idea. But Carter finds the weird, sad center of Mrs. Lovett and brings it alive. Sure, she spends most of the movie looking like she’s about to go dancing at a goth club, but her vulnerability, present in every moment, trumps all else. I think it’s the performance of the film.
I didn’t quite love the movie version of Sweeney Todd, although I can understand how some people might. I walked in to the screening with an open spot on my top ten reserved for it – I love the musical that much – but the film never exactly reached the heights I wanted. That doesn’t mean that the film is not very good, sometimes approaching greatness, and I enjoyed almost every moment of it. Even though it never quite reaches that transcendence that I need to qualify it as one of the best of the year, Sweeney Todd manages to be a consistently great experience, and I’d love to go back and see it again in three weeks when the Hot Topic generation has latched on to it and will be singing along in the theater.