United States, 2007
Directed By: Tim Burton
Written By: John Logan (screenplay), Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (musical), Christopher Bond (play)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rated R for graphic bloody violence
Note: this review was originally published February 8, 2008
Tim Burton tends to be at his best, in my opinion, when his films are not entirely his own. With occasional exceptions (such as Corpse Bride), his more self-indulgent pictures tend to come off as little more than Revenge of the Goths. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a good gothic film—just that Burton’s always seem to have been made for Tim Burton, and only Tim Burton, with relative indifference as to whether there’s an audience for it (possibly because he knows he can always trust the Hot Topic crowd to show up).
You give the man a solid script, though (and preferably one not written specifically for him), and you often end up with a great film. Enter the book and libretto for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a 1979 musical (considered an opera in some circles) by the undeniable genius Stephen Sondheim, based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, which in turn was based on a story that had been around already for quite a long time (and may or may not have been true, but was certainly exploited to no end in British penny dreadfuls of the nineteenth century). Fans of the musical will be pleased that the film follows it very closely; fans of cinema will be glad to know that it also functions quite well as a film.
Sweeny Todd stars (surprise!) Johnny Depp in the title role, a barber who has been wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years while the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) had his way with his wife and raised his daughter (Jayne Wisener). Arriving back in London, he meets up with restaurateur Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who is unable to find affordable meat for her pies. Of course, from here it’s just a small step to the obvious conclusion. Todd combines his mad quest for revenge with Lovett’s need for meat, and the iconic Sweeney Todd setup is born: Todd slits the throats of those who come in for shaves, and then drops their corpses through a trapdoor into Lovett’s kitchen, where she grinds them into mincemeat.
I honestly can’t stress enough just how brilliant the casting is in this film, particularly those in the supporting roles. Depp seems to be playing Todd as a variation on his Jack Sparrow character—albeit a less drunk, more insane version with an impressive baritone voice and a Cruella de Vil wig—but it works well, especially in the dingy gothic world Burton creates. Carter is no Angela Lansbury, of course, but she plays the Lovett character quite a bit differently—a bit more timid and waifish—and she’ll win you over before the end. Alan Rickman is brilliant as always—he’s a bit typecast here, but who’s complaining, as long as the type fits? Sacha Baron Cohen (whom you probably know better as either Ali G or Borat) even shows up in a small but hilarious role. All the actors do their own singing, and while you could argue that this isn’t the sort of singing that would fly on Broadway, it’s perfect for a film, and gives the proceedings an intimacy that simply isn’t possible in a stage performance.
Burton’s direction is also spot-on here, and he gives the streets of eighteenth-century London a filthy, but strangely beautiful, air. Todd’s claustrophobic, gothic barbershop is contrasted with Turpin’s enormous, bourgeois home, and Burton’s skilled editing gives the procedures an air of sadness and death—one certainly all too familiar to the underclass in this time period. He also manages to strike the delicate balance that is musical filmmaking here: allowing the songs to guide the visuals, and not simply filming the play (à la The Producers) or constantly and obnoxiously reminding his audience that this is, in fact, a musical (à la Chicago). Sondheim’s menacing but beautiful melodies sparkle and dance within the inspired sets and editing, and the result is, quite often, mesmerizing. This is undeniably a case of actors, sets, music, and dialogue all working together perfectly.
Finally, I should mention that Sweeney Todd is that all-too-rare (at least lately) specimen: a good horror film. I don’t want to harp on this too much, but would-be directors of horror pictures could learn a lot from Sondheim and Burton’s masterpiece: if you give your villain a motive—i.e., make him believable—your film is much scarier (or, at least, much easier to take seriously). Additionally, a good horror film requires a bit of humor—or at least something to root for. Todd, of course, has both—thus anchoring the proceedings and making the horror all the more disturbing. Todd is a film that functions on numerous levels—musical, horror, revenge tale, black comedy—and is a much richer experience because of it. Obviously not for the faint of heart, but highly recommended nonetheless.