A film review by Craig J. Koban
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER
OF FLEET STREET
2007, R, 117 mins.
2007, R, 117 mins.
Johnny Depp / Mrs. Lovett: Helena Bonham Carter / Judge
Alan Rickman / Beadle Bamford:
Timothy Spall / Pirelli: Sacha Baron Cohen / Johanna:
Jayne Wisener / Anthony Hope: Jamie Campbell Bower
Tim Burtonís SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is an absolutely stunning achievement in art direction, cinematography, and mood, but a completely negligible experience on a dramatic level.
Itís a wondrous piece of dark, operatic eye candy without much soul. The film is certainly engaging on a visual level, but it keeps pushing viewers away and forces them to watch on the outside. Great screen musicals should drawn us into them; SWEENEY TODD has the opposite, almost unintentional, effect: it initially engages us with its imagery, but never captures our wondrous excitement or involvement with its characters or story.
The film is yet another in a respectfully long list of screen musicals that have been released this year - which is a lot considering the relative scarcity of the genre these days. Based on the Tony Award winning musical by High Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, SWEENEY TODD is also, in turn, appropriated from the 19th Century legend of the same name and upon the 1973 play by Christopher Bond. When the musical hit Broadway in March of 1979 it became a huge hit and played for 577 performances.
It just may have one of the most grisly and atypical stories ever to befall a musical: Itís about a wrongfully imprisoned man that comes back to the streets after his lengthy prison sentence and becomes not only a serial killer, but a willful accomplice to another person's usage of the victimís bodies as a meat substitute for meat pies. Gene Kelly just may be turning over in his grave.
Clearly, with a premise this ghastly and horrific, the right aesthetic choices need to be made. Since itís essentially a musical, I think that the underlining material needs to be played up for up for twisted and horrid laughs. Burtonís SWEENEY TODD certainly understands this part of the time, but for most of its running time I am not sure what tone itís really trying to capture. Certainly, there are individual moments that are robust with merriment and joviality which are then punctuated by scenes of sinister bloodshed and often followed by instances of horror and tragedy. The emotional spectrum the film covers is widely all over the map.
Perhaps even more detrimental is that the film never develops any sustained level of passion or energy with its musical numbers. The performers try as they must, but most of the singing in the film seems stiff and lifeless. The more one watches SWEENEY TODD the more one comes to the realization that the film could have worked perhaps better as a straight horror-comedy without music and songs. I think that the key to all great musicals is oneís ability to fondly recall the numbers; SWEENEY TODD has so few remarkable and truly noteworthy ones that you leave the theatre with no real long standing impression of them. Instead, you drink in the filmís ravishing visual opulence and not much else, which makes for a fairly flaccid and hollow film-going experience.
Perhaps the biggest problem with SWEENEY TODD is...well...its handling of Sweeney Todd himself. He is played on auto-pilot by the usually great Johnny Depp and this marks his fifth film with Burton (the most recent being the delightfully colorful and fun CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, the others being SLEEPY HOLLOW, ED WOOD, and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS). Firstly, Depp does not have a lot of vocal range here. Yes, he looks great in the part, but I have seen Depp in similar variations of this character too many times before. He has the same kooky, gothic, and dark look that typified Ichabod Crane, Mr. Scisorhands, and the inspector he played in FROM HELL. Playing Sweeney Todd in no way is a stretch for the actor, and his presence in yet another Burton film seems almost perfunctory.
Moreover, Sweeney - as is the case with most of the characters in the film - is never someone we can emotionally ever invest in. Heís not that likeable, nor is he ever truly sympathetic. Sure, he got a bad rap, but the film never dives into the back story of his imprisonment, nor does it take any time with developing the relationship with his wife and infant daughter before his arrest so that we can feel for his plight later. And as he spirals into madness and starts mercilessly killing innocent people left and right and lets the corpses be used in highly questionable manners, it kind of leaves a cold taste in your mouth. Okay, so his thirst for revenge has driven him insane, but he becomes someone so ruthless and cold hearted that we almost begin to empathize with the "villains" of the film that he attempts to seek revenge on.
The villain in question is the vile and morally reprehensible Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, easily oozing evil, but a bit underused here) who conspired to have poor Sweeney deported to prison so he could steal his wife and daughter. Before serving his 15 year sentence Todd was Benjamin Barker, a noble barber, but his wrongful prison time has turned him dark and hungry for revenge. He emerges back in London as Sweeney Todd and discovers that his wife poisoned herself while he was on the inside and - gasp! - that his teenage daughter (Jayne Wisener) has now become Turpinís ward.
Sweeney then decides to make it his quest to rid the earth of the nasty Judge for good. Of course, he does not kill the judge early when he has an easy opportunity to do so. Rather, he plans a laborious and complicated plan to exact his revenge slowly. Along with his trusted sidekick, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), Todd finds his way back to his old barber shop which now has an incredibly run down pub underneath it that makes meat pies that look like they have sat at a window for several months. The bakery is run by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). The two soon become willing accomplices in a dastardly plot. The more Todd wants revenge the more insane he becomes; as citizens start entering his new barber shop they soon become victims to Toddís razors and, even worse, the bodies are sent - via a trap door - to the basement of the pub where Lovett grinds the bodies into meat for her ultimate meat pie recipe, which eventually becomes a popular seller. Yuch.
As stated, the Oscar caliber production design (by Dante Ferretti) and cinematography (by Dariusz Wolski) is sensational. They make 19th Century London a dreary and foreboding landscape for this equally gloomy tale. Itís just a shame that nothing really interesting or compelling happens in this filmís beautifully dark atmosphere. I guess that there is only so much one can invest into a story about a serial killer and cannibalism. The underlining story of the film is fairly mechanical and preordained, as is the woefully underdeveloped sub plot involving Toddís young partner and his growing love for his daughter. Alan Rickmanís protagonist is also a juicy and wickedly evil creation (there is one moment where he sentences a very young criminal to hang that provides the filmís darkest laugh), but he is too paper thin as a character and his creepiness and volatility never reaches the crescendos it should have.
Depp and Carter are adequate in the film and Depp is able to easily inhabit Toddís dementia with minimal ease. Although Carter is Deppís superior as a vocal talent, she plays her part a bit too gleefully considering her characterís more deep, twisted underpinnings. The film only comes to life during the brief cameo by Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, the one of BORAT fame) who plays his part appropriately broadly - and for laughs - as Toddís rival Italian barber named Pirelli, who does not take kindly to Toddís new business. Cohen gives the film a much needed jolt and vitality, but his screen time his kept to a disappointing minimum.
Tim Burton can easily be regarded as a compellingly gifted and off-beat director that has proven time and time again that he can make a dark, morbid, and fiendishly irreverent film with the best of them. There are just too many films on his resume that fit the same aesthetic palette of SWEENEY TODD: Heís made films like this before - and very competently - so now its time for him to dive into other creative waters. Films like BIG FISH were steps in the right direction, as was his best film, ED WOOD. He certainly goes for broke at times with filming the famous musical (the movie is incredibly bloody at times, but the blood that gushes is sort of over-the-top in terms of color hue and quantity, which is suitable I guess), but SWEENEY TODD subverts the directorís usual boisterousness and energy. The film is a tour de force achievement of sights, but is emotionally cold on a character and dramatic level. Lacking in memorable songs, a stirring and involving story, characters we can invest in, and an overall sense of cheerful, reckless abandon, SWEENEY TODD wears out its welcome too quickly.