I’m a big fan of the abrupt and melodramatic style of the musical, and an even bigger fan of the dread and grue associated with horror movies. I also (surprise!) happen to really, really like movies. It therefore stands to reason that a movie version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street would be quite up my alley, replete with spontaneous musical numbers, coated with a disturbingly thick layer of red, and acted by a cast featuring the wonderful talents of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Alan Rickman (as well as Sacha Baron Cohen and the under-appreciated Timothy Spall). What could possibly go wrong with this picture?
Tim Burton’s treatment of the classic story doesn’t fail entirely, but it misses the mark in enough ways that his vision of Sweeney Todd never fully connected with me. Part of his error lies in not going far enough; Burton’s interpretation of Todd’s world, put simply, never quite as squalid, hopeless, and vicious as it should be.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Benjamin Barker (Depp) is a successful barber who finds himself victim of the machinations of Judge Turpin (Rickman). Turpin lusts for Barker’s beautiful wife, and to “win” her, the corrupt official has Barker rung up on phony charges and banished. Fifteen years later Barker returns a changed man, and learns that his wife is dead and his daughter in the care of Turpin. He adopts the pseudonym of Sweeney Todd and sets out to make his revenge with the aid of former landlady Mrs. Lovett (Bonham-Carter), who secretly loves Barker/Todd; together they set up a lucrative business murdering patrons of Todd’s barber shop and turning their remains into meat pies.
Very charming. It’s also very much my kind of story.
But from start to finish the entire film feels sterilized. Burton’s London, brought to life with a combination of real sets and CGI magic, is gritty, dismal, and unpleasant, certainly, but it’s also unabashedly perfect in how gritty, dismal, and unpleasant it is. Not even in the ruin of Todd’s former place of residence or Lovett’s bake shop is there a real sense of imperfection; all of the griminess betrays just how staged it is through how artfully composed it is. It looks great– it should– but it’s also far too “pretty” for me to buy it. Every scuzzy inch of the sets never genuinely feels like part of the downtrodden and squalid world Todd inhabits. And, of course, that ugly-to-be-beautiful aesthetic may have entirely been the point, given Burton’s talents with set design and his creative flair for composing eye-catching imagery. But a movie like Sweeney Todd, for me, begs for the director to revel in and embrace its seediness and decay, which Burton never fully does (as an aside, I wonder now if this had something to do with the large amount of CGI used to create the London in Burton’s mind), and this lack of verve does a disservice to the film’s overall tone. Even when things get bloody– and they do, for the record, get quite bloody– all of that viscera mostly gets unleashed with control and caution, feeling like a rehearsed act rather than a crime committed in the moment. Several kills stand out as particularly unbridled, and they imbue the sense of shock that the image of a barber brutally murdering his patrons should, but the film rarely goes for the jugular with the necessary relish.
Where Sweeney Todd does find its bite lies in, for the most part, the performances, which are almost uniformly wonderful even if they do come up somewhat short in the singing department. Of course, that’s a major problem when your movie is a musical, but the cast finds a way to make everything work despite their general lack of vocal ability (particularly Alan Rickman, who otherwise proves completely delightful as the loathsome and arrogant Turpin)– they work through the lyrics admirably, adapting as they are able to do Steven Sondheim’s songs justice. Interestingly, the major weakness in Sweeney Todd is Todd himself. I can completely understand the decision to cast an actor like Depp in this sort of role, but Depp shares in common the same flaws as the film’s world-building excercise– he’s too damn handsome. Barker’s transformation from family man to lunatic manifest in a streak of white running through his hair and a sudden change in the hue of his skin tone; for a guy who’s supposedly been doing hard labor in Australia for the duration of his exile, that’s just not enough. Depp performs the role admirably enough, talk-singing his way through musical numbers and bringing Todd’s dark rage boiling over the surface, but the look of the character ends up betraying all the strong work he does here.
Fortunately, the rest of the cast is there to make up for his shortcomings, particularly Helena Bonham-Carter as Mrs. Lovett. I’m growing somewhat weary of Burton’s insistence on casting her (his inamorata) in many of his most recent films’ major roles, but the love-sick Lovett presents the perfect character for her talents. Here, she layers the character with a balance of sweet and sorrowful, and delivers lyrics with gusto. Out of the professional actors present in the cast, she may well have the very best voice, making her numbers among the most effective in between scenes of her pining for Todd and devising schemes. From start to finish, Bonham-Carter has the most fun with her role without question, though Rickman, again, is devilishly good and Sacha Baron Cohen and underrated character actor Timothy Spall make the most of their limited screentime.
In many ways, Sweeney Todd scores, but it misses just as often as it hits. I applaud a mainstream film going as dark and blood as this one, and the music and performances for the most part work and entertain, but for a film based on a penny dreadful about a murderous, throat-slicing barber, Sweeney Todd doesn’t quite go as far as it needs to. Maybe if Burton had been more willing to make his film a little more ugly, Todd’s story could truly have popped and the picture would have worked much better as a whole, rather than in bits and pieces. But it’s Burton’s timid restraint that ends up bringing the film down– he holds back in every scene, and it shows.