Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [dir. Tim Burton]
The reemergence of the musical as a viable, awards season showcase has been fraught with inconsistency. For every example of the genre that seems to click with voters and moviegoers (Chicago), there’s ambitious flops (The Phantom of the Opera) and pandering populism (Dreamgirls). Finding the right balance between Broadway and the big screen is never easy, mainly because the source material inherently thwarts a carefree translation. What works on a stage before a live audience turns odd and even ineffectual within the two dimensional medium. Similarly, even the most gifted filmmaker can fail in capturing the true spirit of a piece.
So fans of Stephen Sondheim had ever reason to be worried. His Tony Award winning masterwork Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is perhaps the most difficult and obtuse of his shows to make the cinematic leap - and with a track record that includes the unbalanced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the miserably miscast A Little Night Music, he’s far from foolproof. Luckily, the right auteur came along, a director so perfectly in tune with the composer’s layered conceits that one imagines it was written specifically for him. Many have dismissed Tim Burton as a goofy Goth visionary who has never met a narrative he couldn’t defang. Even worse, some have suggested that, as his mainstream acceptance has grown, his artistic acumen has faded.
Not true - and his brand new version of Sweeney Todd is more than enough proof. As the perfect marriage of maker and material, this dark, disturbing splatter-etta stands as the best film of 2007. It is an outright masterpiece, a work of bravura craftsmanship by a man whose been preparing for this creative moment all his directorial life. Like soulmates bound at the most primal, bloodlusting level, Sondheim and Burton merge to form a cohesive, craven whole, the show’s thematic undercurrents of malice, corruption, and revenge splashing across the screen in monochrome mise-en-scene and torrents of arterial inevitability. Stripped of its need for constant self-referencing (fans may balk at the cutting of some key expositional numbers) and reduced down to its nastiest nature, it’s the reason that film continues its status as art.
When we first meet Sweeney Todd, he is returning to London after a long stint in prison. Jailed by a jealous Judge named Turpin for crimes he did not commit, the former Benjamin Barker learns that his beautiful wife was raped, and later committed suicide. Even worse, his equally attractive daughter Johanna has been taken in as the Magistrate’s ward. Desperate for retribution, Todd decides to take up his old profession - barbering - only this time, his clients won’t be leaving his shop through the front door. Upon meeting and conspiring with the impoverished pie merchant Mrs. Lovett, Todd attempts to reestablish his trade.
He challenges Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli to a shaving competition, and with the win, must face the dandy’s considerable wrath. In the meantime, a young sailor has fallen for Todd’s teenage daughter, and warns the barber of the terrible news - Turpin is in love with her, and is planning on taking her as his bride. Through murder, the anguished father will work his way to the man he feels is responsible for his miserable fate. It will also help Mrs. Lovett’s failing shop, as meat for her pies is hard to come by…
There are two ways to look at Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd - both of them successful. Fans of the original may wince at a few of the obvious edits (no “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, a truncated “City on Fire”) yet should embrace the stark and quite stunning way in which the film illustrates Sondheim’s main symbol - the shedding of blood as a balm for the troubled soul. While the truth of this legend’s actual existence may never be fully known (people still swear Todd was a real person, without any proof of same), the notion of his mark as a frightening figure of unhinged justice is fully realized. Both tragic and terrifying, without pity and full of passion, Sweeney Todd is a crushed spirit working out his anguish in rivers of the red stuff, one slit throat at a time.
Anyone unfamiliar with the show, or simply showing up to see Johnny Depp deliver another remarkable acting turn will also come away more than satisfied. In a career arc that’s seen its fair share of experimentation and excess, the now marketable mainstream superstar is absolutely brilliant here. It’s a risky role - the music lacks a standard pop song structure, and for all his glorified depression, Todd remains a wicked, wicked man - but thanks to his undeniable talent, Depp turns a figure of immense evil into something somber and quite sad. He is not the bombastic vocal presence of a Len Cariou (the original Great White Way Todd) or George Hearn, but his performance of the musical material is heartbreaking. He syncs up flawlessly with Sondheim’s sentiments, resulting in the most menacing, mercurial Todd ever.
His is matched equally well by Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Unlike the stage versions of the character, which hinge on a broad based sense of surrealistic bawdy cockney slapstick to sell the cannibalism, this version of the pie merchant is all grime and desperation. Lovett is not comic relief or audience friendly joviality. She’s a shattered soul, just like Todd, and her ready kinship and scheming with the barber is never forced or implausible. Carter may possess the smallest of voices, but like Depp, she delivers in the mandatory emotional ranges. During their brilliant bits of byplay (the clever ” A Little Priest”) or her shattering solo spots (the hilarious “By the Sea”), Lovett is the levelheaded version of Todd’s evil. She wants the same results that he does - and by some accounts, a whole lot more.
The remainder of the cast is just outstanding. Timothy Spall is like a vile Victorian woodcarving come to life as the disgusting, devilish Beadle Bamford. Alan Rickman is also marvelously malevolent as the vile Judge Turpin. The movie’s brief bits of comedy are handled with amazing adeptness by Borat‘s Sacha Baron Cohen, and little Ed Sanders is a sensational Tobias Raggs. He handles the seminal song “Not While I’m Around” with a beautiful bravery. Since their roles are reduced here, the actors playing Johanna and Anthony don’t get much screen time. But both Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower offer powerful voices and memorable moments.
But it’s Burton who ends up the true hero, his eye for the unusual and the downtrodden in full, flowering effect. Aside from the gallons of grue, he works in a very muted palette, the almost black and whiteness of his color scheme leaving room for lots and lots of blood. This is Grand Guignol glorification, a movie that celebrates arterial spray in ways genre efforts can’t embrace. Every spurting throat, every gaping wound, is an extension of Todd’s pent up anguish. He needs release, and the only way it can be found is via the blade. But Burton’s not just a slave to the slice and dice. He stages the many songs in a smaller, more minor note, keeping the multifaceted emotions inside Sondheim’s occasionally obtuse lyrics front and center.
The result is the year’s finest cinematic experience, a movie completely awash in its own outsized elements and internalized treats. Like all great artists, the talent involved here didn’t dishonor Sondheim, but instead, they make the material their own. That’s the true test of any adaptation. Perhaps the reason other recent musicals have failed is because of a disingenuous desire to stay true to the original while modernizing (or in other cases, pointlessly modifying) the source to satisfy unclear demographical concerns. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is proof that, when left to their own devices, the gifted will give over to something quite special. The undeniable greatness exhibited here certainly supports such a conclusion.