Sweeney Todd (2007) dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
Readers may recall my strongly negative reaction to "Sweeney Todd". Well, on second viewing, my opinion has changed. “Sweeney Todd” was like night and day watching for a second time on DVD. Tim Burton’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical is a gothic nightmare fantasy that delves deep into the deranged mind warped by the need for revenge.
Johnny 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.
Seeing it in a theatre for the first time, without much knowledge of the original material it came as a shock to find out the film was 90% broadway-style singing, with very little traditional dialogue. The songs seemed to lighten and reduce the power of the dark and complex material. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter’s singing voices are still the weakest elements of the film, but on DVD I had a chance to listen closely to the lyrics to fully understand the story better. In fact, I had to use subtitles to read every line sung by Carter – her high-pitched cockney-thick accent is almost impenetrable at times.
Within the Sondheim's words contains all the stuff that makes the film as good as it is. Often in musicals songs are used to express the emotions of the characters, but in “Sweeney Todd” the songs are what push the story forward. Here the lyrics express the motivations, deceptions, inner thoughts and plotpoints which move the film from one scene to the next.
The cause and effect actions of Todd and Levitt create a snowball effect of bloody carnage. The second half of the film sores over the first and picks up speed toward its nasty and tragic Shakespearean ending. In fact, “Sweeney Todd” is more in tradition of the great Italian tragic operas.
“Sweeney Todd” is still not without its flaws – four big ones in fact. Neither Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman or Timothy Spall can sing. It’s a shame because I assume there’s long list of fine stage performers that have sung Sondheim’s words beautifully in the past. Great singers could have made the film even better. And I'm still shocked Johnny Depp was nominated for an Oscar!
But it’s a testament to the power of Tim Burton’s directorial skills to elevate Sondheim’s story above mediocre voices. For those like me who couldn’t get into a tragic story told in song, give it another shot, eventually the film will grab hold and envelope you with it’s hypnotic and wonderful throat-slashings. Enjoy.