SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET directed by Tim Burton, written by John Logan from the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman. A DreamWorks release. 117 minutes. Rating: NNN
Tim Burton is used to putting his name before movie titles – i.e., Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride or Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
But there’s a reason why his latest film isn’t called Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. The goth-geek icon’s bloody fingerprints might be all over the art direction, but the real genius behind it is composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
If anything, this Sweeney should win new fans for Sondheim, most of whose challenging, genre-busting musicals have escaped big-screen adaptation. (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum was an early work, and he only wrote the lyrics for Gypsy and West Side Story.)
Sondheim’s clever wordplay and inventive harmonic structures work better on the live stage, where an audience can suspend its disbelief and really pay attention. Movie audiences, especially for a big-budget gamble like this, are more conservative. There’s a reason why DreamWorks kept much of the singing out of the trailers. This isn’t Hairspray, folks.Not that lots of other things don’t go spraying. Burton and his muse, Johnny Depp, seem to have great fun slitting throats filled with thick, bright red blood.
Depp’s Sweeney is the alias of Benjamin Barker, an innocent barber in Victorian England who was unjustly arrested and sent away for 15 years by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) who then pursued Sweeney’s wife.
Now the disguised barber’s back for vengeance, and he hooks up with former landlady Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s having a hard time making meat pies until Sweeney starts wielding his razor on men’s throats in preparation for his time with the judge. Why waste the meat from the fresh corpses?
This is nasty melodrama, underscored by a literal eat-or-be-eaten theme. I’m just not sure it works on the big screen. Sondheim’s songs are operatic in scope, and after a couple of climactic numbers there’s a strange feeling in the theatre: Do you applaud? Stand up?
Writer John Logan has chopped away a few things – I guess he thought the word “ablutions” was too obscure – and he’s wisely switched the order of the opening scenes in the second act. The biggest omission is the chorus, which onstage comments on the action. But it’s impressive how many of Sondheim’s songs remain uncut, with something very close to their original orchestrations.
Depp and Bonham Carter are passable singers. He’s channelling David Bowie at a makeshift Broadway karaoke night, while she has a hushed, whispering singing voice that’s oddly affecting. The fact that they don’t have Broadway-belter heft adds to the work’s intimacy. Too bad Burton misses one crucial aha! scene during the turning-point Epiphany song near the end of the first act.
As expected, the look of the film is bloody amazing. Sweeney’s creepy barbershop is all crooked German Expressionist angles and cracked- mirror perspectives. Soot-filled London comes across so vividly you’ll want to choke. And one quick jaunt to the seaside provides colourful contrast (even if it is a fantasy) to the congested hell of urban life.
I can’t wait to see the DVD extras on the film’s design. Maybe Burton will explain why he opted for blood that looks more like tomato purée than the real thing.
The Academy loves Johnny Depp, and it also loves musicals – unless they’re Dreamgirls, of course. But the only sure nominations here seem to be in the design categories (art direction, costume). There’s not even an original song to get a nomination in that category.