Think of Sweeney Todd, the central character in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, as Edward Scissorhands with a grudge. A barber who slashes the throats of his victims and leaves them to be baked into meat pies by his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, Todd was first imagined as far back as 1846, and storytellers have been fine-tuning him ever since. But while he may have been around for centuries, in Burton’s hands, and played by Johnny Depp, he seems specifically created to play the Hulk to Scissorhands’ David Banner.
How and why Todd becomes a maniacal killer is a thin story, and the lack of plot or character development ultimately dooms the movie to boredom. We learn in the opening scene that Todd is returning to London after many years. He was banished to Australia by the wicked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who had stolen Todd’s lovely wife and baby daughter, Johanna. Soon after, the wife poisoned herself. Now, lovely Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is a teenager held captive by the judge, who plans to marry her.
You can see why a guy might be upset. Todd, looking unrecognizable (he’s shown in one flashback looking outlandishly boyish and innocent, and now he looks like Cruella De Vil after a sex change), gets his barber shop running again, planning to entice the judge for a shave and cut his throat. But when his initial attempt is stymied, he becomes so frustrated that he decides to murder a string of innocent strangers. He dumps them into Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) furnace room with a sickening crack, and she turns them into filling.
Of course, this being a Burton production, the movie is set-designed to within an inch of its life. That’s not a complaint, since the bleakly lush visuals are Sweeney Todd’s greatest strength by far. The London captured here is continually choked with soot, so that one brief fantasy sequence set during a sunny day looks like the immediate aftermath of a nuclear blast. And one gets the feeling that Burton could be directing Depp in a biopic of Cary Grant, and the star would still emerge from the makeup room looking like a raccoon with a sleep deficit.
Depp’s pipes are passable, but it’s his doleful eyes and unlovable side that make him right for the role. He sometimes sounds like David Bowie, particularly during the song “Pretty Women.” Anyone who thinks musicals should be cast with world-class voices will be disappointed, but Sondheim’s verbally packed songs aren’t always built for great singing, anyway. The lyricist’s reputation precedes him, but for the first act I was wondering where that reputation developed. Early on, Todd sings a ballad to his straight razors called “My Friends,” and with nothing for Depp to do but stare at the tools and croon the pedestrian lyrics, things turn dull awfully fast.
The songs get better. Especially clever is “A Little Priest,” in which Todd and Mrs. Lovett discuss the culinary virtues and flaws of certain personalities — “try a little priest…they don’t commit sins of the flesh / so it’s pretty fresh.”
Toward the end of the movie, Mrs. Lovett and Toby (Ed Sanders), a young street urchin who’s become like a son to the dastardly couple, sing to each other a beautiful song, the central lyric of which is “nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around.”
The characters in Sweeney Todd meet so many grisly ends — silently sliced, thrown into a furnace, digested — that you’d think Edward Gorey deserves a screenwriting credit, and no pretty lyric is enough to keep anyone safe. The movie ends, appropriately, with a ludicrous bloodbath.
The cast is fine, sometimes terrific, and while the songs disappointed me from time to time, I’m not about to launch a crusade to reevaluate Stephen Sondheim. The real problem is that everyone begins and ends the movie exactly as they began it, so in the most important dramatic sense, nothing happens. What does occur is too campy to be truly frightening and too jugular-spurting to be much fun.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street / John Williams
Film Reviews | December 26, 2007 | Comments ()