Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Ed Sanders, Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jayne Wisener, Laura Michelle Kelly
Plot: After being falsely imprisoned, so an evil judge (Rickman) could get to his wife (Kelly), Benjamin Barker (Depp) returns to Fleet Street as the vengeful barber, Sweeney Todd!
There are few that don’t know the Stephen Sondheim take on the Gothic tale of Sweeney Todd. Reinventing the urban myth of a demon barber with a habit of slitting the throats of his clientele, Sondheim gave Sweeney a motive. Giving him a back story of a loving husband who had his life torn apart by a vindictive judge who has the hots for Todd’s wife, suddenly Todd’s murderous streak wasn’t fruitless, but the slow crawl towards a bloody finale. The best thing about Sondheim’s version is that he doesn’t suddenly make Sweeney Todd a nice character, just because he has a reason for what he is doing; the man is still a Gothic monster in its finest form, but now he has a rich three-dimensional back-story.
This is probably the main reason Tim Burton was inspired to take up the mantle of putting a cinematic take on the famed musical. Sweeney Todd’s film history is slim with one film in the 30s, before Sondheim added to the character, and one little-known BBC drama starring Ray Winstone, without any of the songs. This gives Burton a greenlight to become the director who brought Sweeney Todd to the wider world, outside of theatre. Few would argue that Burton is the right choice of director for this visually disturbing legend. He has a magical flair for the despicable, a gritty super-realism that makes his pictures stand out from the others. This could also be Burton’s bloodiest tale; the only signs of censoring the brutal murders of the story is the colour-grading of the blood effects to a slightly orangey hue. Otherwise, this is Burton at his most visceral, throats being lazily hacked open and skulls being smashed open, as they fall from hefty heights. There is also something about the intimacy of having your neck sliced open that causes shivers down the spine. He also embraces the musical side of things. Depp and Bonham Carter are never going to be your first choice of leading vocalists, but they hold their own surprisingly well. Their rendition of the best song of the entire piece ‘My Friends’, is an early highlight of the film. There is also a great visual piece of story-telling where we are transported to Bonham Carter’s dream fantasy, where her and Sweeney Todd escape the grimy streets of London and head off to the sunny beaches of aboard. The best thing about this scene is Burton scrapping the pale colour-scape of the rest of the film and suddenly treating us with an explosion of blue skies and yellow beaches. Yes, visually, Burton fits the story like a glove. But there are times when I couldn’t help but wish that someone who wasn’t Burton was telling this story. It is almost as though visuals are all that Burton has up his sleeve. I felt there was a whole story here that was missing from the movie. Most of the characters are playing caricatures, rather than adding depth to anything. Depp is the creepy barber, replacing looks for meaning with his best ‘scary stare’. Bonham Carter’s character feels the most under-developed in terms of the script. Mrs. Lovett has several strands of interesting narrative, but Burton never fully tackles any of them. They are revealed as shock twists, rather than intriguing characterisation. Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are all but left out of the final edit, as the star-struck lovers, hovering around the peripheries of the plot and reduced to the bare minimum of a storyline. You can tell that Burton never really had much interest in their characters, but felt compelled to squeeze them in somewhere. The only two characters who seem able to scrape beneath the surface are Alan Rickman, who really hammers home the perversion of his character in one tiny scene where he wanders around his library, and Ed Sanders, as the young assistant of Mrs. Lovett. His character is filled with the kind of shifting arc that you want everyone to have. The character we start with is miles from the character we end with. I cannot say the same for anyone else.
And a two-hour film where Burton has nothing but pretty cinematography becomes a very tough watch indeed. It doesn’t help that Sondheim’s brand of musical is essentially the same song altered slightly for the key scenes. Sweeney Todd is a musical without that one snazzy hit that you can write home about. Burton’s Sweeney Todd begins to feel like a beginner’s guide to the character, rather than anything trying to push the boundaries of what the character can be. It makes a very dreary film for those in the know… and those new to Sweeney Todd will probably be wondering what all the fuss is about. It manages to pull itself back from being another shameless Burton passion project with an explosive finale. All the strands of plot come to a head and Burton brings us the kind of gripping scenes that he is the master of. There are three major character deaths that will curl your toes in the space of ten minutes (as well as one generic throat slice for good measure), each one able to get into the Best of Burton category. That final frame, screaming Gothic romance, will haunt the viewer for some time. So, Burton’s Sweeney Todd is not quite a disaster, as the middle act suggested it might be, but my advice to the director: maybe stick to the original screenplays for a little while.
Final Verdict: Burton excels at creating a visual treat out of Sweeney Todd, but he is only really playing lip service to the Gothic myth.