Sweeney Todd (2007) dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower
Note: I'm writing this review not knowing anything about the original musical. I feel like the victim of false advertising. Though I knew “Sweeney Todd” was based on a Broadway musical the trailer featured virtually no singing whatsoever. In fact, 90% of the film is music and song. And not just the occasional song, it’s like one continuous musical number interrupted by brief moments of dialogue. No disrespect to Stephen Sondheim whose songs and music are complex and intricate but for many people unfamiliar with the material it will likely be an inpenetrable film. Some will see the brilliance in adapting Sondheim's music to the screen, others, like me, will have difficulty seeing past Johnny Depp singing his dialogue.
Depp plays “Benjamin Barker” who returns to home to London, on a mission to exact revenge on the men who kidnapped and killed his wife many years ago. Since then Barker has changed his name to “Sweeney Todd”, and is now a murderous sadistic maniac with a death wish. He befriends a local meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and he sets up a barbershop in her attic where he will perform his bloody revenge killings. They work together to find and lure his victims to the shop where he shaves them, cuts their throat and discards the bodies to be ground up into Lovett’s meat pies.
Perhaps I’m the wrong person to review this film because though I don’t mind actors ‘singing’ their dialogue when it’s on stage, I most certainly find it unwatchable on screen. Each scene would start out with traditional dialogue, and just when the scene would get creepy or interesting the characters would suddenly start singing. Nothing zaps the tension out of scene more than the characters breaking out into showtunes. For example, the first confrontation with his nemesis Judge Turbin (Alan Rickman): Todd invites Turbin to sit in his chair for a shave. This is the moment Todd’s been waiting for years, to have the kidnappers of his wife vulnerable and ready to die. But then Rickman and Depp start bellowing the harmonizing song “Pretty Women”. I immediately fell out of the scene, and into a different movie – a movie I didn’t want to see. So, perhaps it’s my ignorance with the material or my stubbornness to accept music and song in a dark tale of murder, but either way it was a frustrating experience.
The potential for what “Sweeney Todd” could have been is evidenced in the third act when the film conspicuously holds back the songs and finishes the story off with a more traditional dialogue-driven narrative. The final 20 minutes, which saves the film from an even lower rating from me, is a fantastic bloody and tragic climax worthy of its Italian operas roots, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence the singing was minimalized to a few verses.
I think Tim Burton is a good director with a unique sense of style and design, but unfortunately the design team seemed to be on auto-pilot with this one. There were few visual surprises as most of everything we see in the film is recycled from “Edward Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow”. There’s Johnny Depp’s costume and hair which we’ve seen before in “Scissorhands”, Johanna’s died-blonde heroine - a twin of Winona Ryder’s and Christina Ricci’s characters from “Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow” - plus there’s the pasty white powdered goth skin and Dariusz Wolski’s colour-drained cinematography – all of which is typical Burton stuff.
What’s different is the rage and fury and the amount of blood spilled in this film. Correct me if I’m wrong but its Burton’s first R-rated film. Burton makes the most of his rating as he probably sets the record for the most throat-slashings in one film. It’s wonderful to see Burton exercise some violent tendencies in this film, because for a man who has delved into darkness so many times it’s about time we saw some blood. I just wished he didn’t slash people’s throat over Broadway showtunes.
If you like musicals, and know “Sweeney Todd” you will likely be thoroughly satisfied, but if you don’t want to see Johnny Depp or Alan Rickman singing together (both of whom are only adequate) and just want to see Tim Burton spill some blood this is not the flick for you.