The recent years have not been particularly kind to Tim Burton. Prior to Sweeney Todd, the last movie of his that I genuinely liked was Sleepy Hollow way back in 1999. His “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes was a disaster, practically the textbook definition of an auteur slumming it for the studios with a film he barely seemed interested in.
Big Fish had some memorable images, but it was the rare Burton film that felt cloying and packed full of Hollywood clichés about living life to its fullest. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride were modest pleasures, but in both cases I left the theater knowing I would never have the desire to rewatch the movie again.
Burton appeared to be going in circles, giving us the same warmed over goth look in films that didn’t have anything new to say and weren’t meant for anybody except people who hang out at Hot Topic every weekend. When a director’s style begins to devolve into a predictable set of tics and visual gimmicks, it’s time to try something radically different or risk becoming irrelevant (Wes Anderson, take note).
For Burton, that meant adapting Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, itself based on a gruesome urban legend about a serial killer-barber in 19th century London. Todd was once a family man with a lovely wife and baby daughter, but he was arrested and sent to an Australian prison on false charges by a corrupt judge who was infatuated with his wife.
Fifteen years later Todd returns to London, only to learn that his wife poisoned herself and his daughter has been adopted by the same man who imprisoned him. He swears revenge, and in the meantime he goes back into business as a barber and starts cutting the throats of any upper-class types foolish enough to ask him for a shave – he even designs a ghoulish reclining chair that drops the dead bodies through a trap door. He’s aided by his accomplice Mrs. Lovett, owner of the bakery underneath his own business, who decides to turn the corpses of his victims into fresh meat pies.
That’s pretty grisly material for a musical, with songs that veer from perverse black humor (“A Little Priest”, about what different kinds of people might taste like) to righteous anger (“Epiphany”) to wistful melancholy (“By the Sea”). But the songs work beautifully, not just because of Sondheim’s talent for writing catchy lyrics (though that helps), but because they channel the passion and intensity of the play’s twisted characters. And while the movie version of Sweeney Todd allows Burton to indulge in a number of his obsessions – meticulously designed, deliberately artificial sets; cinematography that makes the world look almost monochromatic; protagonists with pale skin and sunken eyes; Helena Bonham Carter – it’s that passion coursing underneath the surface that makes this film feel more alive than anything he’s done in years.
To make it even better he has his long-time leading man, Johnny Depp, in the role of Todd himself. When Depp was first cast in the part, there was a lot of grumbling from movie fans about whether it was a good idea to entrust the fate of a musical to a man without any professional singing experience. So, can Depp sing? The answer: pretty much. He’s definitely not a virtuoso and I wouldn’t recommend that he quit his day job, but he’s able to carry a tune in a manner that is quit suiting for the part. Every now and then you’ll notice a tricky note that he doesn’t quite hit, but for the most part Depp makes up for it with a punk rock intensity that’s thrilling to listen to and at the same time makes him look like a convincing psychopath.
And really it’s a moot point to criticize Depp for his singing abilities since there’s no way this movie would have gotten made without him. Since Sweeney Todd is a blood-soaked, R-rated musical about a serial killer, its only hope of drawing a crowd at the box office was to have a major star playing Todd. And there’s no bigger star out there right now than Johnny Depp.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine who else would be famous enough to play Sweeney Todd and also have been a good match for the part; perhaps Ewan McGregor, who’s a bankable star and proved in Moulin Rouge that he can sing. But while McGregor is a talented actor, there’s no one who can surpass Depp in the crazy department. That deranged glare of his suggests a man just barely able to suppress his personal demons. The hollowed out look in his eyes like he hasn’t slept in years needs little make-up to enhance the effect. As an all-around actor, Depp was clearly the best choice for the role of Sweeney Todd.
And the rest of the cast is a dream team of thespians who perfectly embody their characters. As the vile Judge Turpin, Alan Rickman oozes reptilian charm and the thoughtless menace of a man whose wealth and privilege allow him to do anything he wants (although sadly, Rickman is the worst singer of the bunch, with a voice that almost sounds like frog’s croak – thankfully he’s only got two songs, but here, too, his voice suits his role). Newcomers Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower have the wide-eyed innocence of kids who haven’t yet seen the horrors of their adult counterparts. And that chameleon of an actor, Sacha Baron Cohen, shows off his tremendous singing (who knew?) and disappears inside the character of Signor Pirelli, a flamboyant faux-Italian barber whose wardrobe looks like it was stolen from Prince.
But even with all this talent on display, the real standout is Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. Although she’s not a professional singer either, she holds her own and somehow makes Lovett a completely sympathetic character; if Sweeney Todd is the center of the movie, then she’s its heart and soul.
It’s Mrs. Lovett who’s responsible for the single best moment in the movie, the musical number “By the Sea”, in which she tells Todd her daydream about retiring to the shore when she’s older and not so subtly hints that he should join her. It’s here that all of the elements of the film click together like the gears underneath Sweeney Todd’s mechanized chair: Tim Burton’s direction and Dante Ferretti’s production design create a seaside wonderland that’s as magical as anything we could have dreamed up. Johnny Depp acts hilariously out of place as a domesticated househusband, and Carter nails the heartfelt longing in Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. Even in her private fantasies Mrs. Lovett knows that Todd will never love her back, but she still can’t abandon her feelings for him.
And that’s the real violence of Sweeney Todd – even though the movie contains graphic images of slit throats, broken necks, cannibalism, in one case, a woman burned alive, the saddest and scariest moments involve the characters’ broken dreams. Todd obsesses over killing Judge Turpin, but he never thinks about what he’ll do afterwards or the cost of that vengeance on his soul. Mrs. Lovett is foolish enough to love Todd, but even more foolishly, she trusts him. Neither one is prepared for the moment when their dreams, as hopeless and shabby as they are, fall apart before their eyes. Poor things.
The DVD for Sweeney Todd contains almost a dozen featurettes of varying quality. “The Making of Sweeney Todd” and “Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd” are the sort of vapid self-promotional pieces in which the actors line up to describe Burton with words like “genius” and “visionary”. Yawn.
Just once I’d like to see a DVD special feature where everyone agrees that the director is incompetent, or at least an egomaniacal jerk (come to think of it, I have that seen that special feature: check out the making-of documentary on the special edition of Aliens, in which the crew members try to think of the most tasteful ways to say that James Cameron is difficult to work with).
Thankfully, there are a few features that allow the cast and crew to be more relaxed, such as a press conference for the film and an interview with Depp and Burton asking each other fan-submitted questions. And best of all are a couple of unconventional extras that delve into the legend of Sweeney Todd and the history behind the project: “Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition” examines a famous horror theatre in France, “Sweeney is Alive” investigates whether or not the character was based on a real person, and “Sweeney’s London” is an excellent primer on living conditions in London during the 1800s (hint: be grateful you weren’t born then).