Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener
Running Time: 116 min.
*** (out of ****)
Tim Burton is a one of a kind filmmaker that’s for sure. In fact, he’s such a one of a kind filmmaker that I’m starting to worry if he’s only capable of making one kind of film. And with his adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street he’s given the last thing he ever needed: An excuse to completely overindulge his dark, Gothic sensibilities as a director. There will be those who absolutely love this film. For fans of Burton’s notoriously macabre work or even movie musicals in general this is a dream (or rather nightmare) come true. Even though I don’t fit into either category I’m still recommending it, but not without some reservations.
Anyone who claims Sweeney Todd is a giant leap forward for Burton or some kind of huge departure because it’s a musical is completely off their rocker. This is totally in his comfort zone and other than the fact that it has music in it it’s still very much vintage Burton. It’s also his darkest, most depressing effort since Batman Returns and could make No Country For Old Men look like the feel-good date movie of the year. But there’s no denying that it’s very well done for what it is.
The performances are great, it mostly succeeds as a musical, and as a tragedy it’s also effective. However, if you’re looking for a rollicking good time, go someplace else. I’d tell you you’ll feel like slashing your wrists when it’s over but by then you’ll probably be so sick of the sight of blood that you’ll lose interest. What the movie proves, for better or worse, is that no one makes a Tim Burton movie like Tim Burton and because he’s so great at it he gets a pass. I’m just not sure how much longer I can put up with it though. It would be nice to see him try something completely different for a change.
15 years ago Barber Benjamin Barker (Oscar nominated Johnny Depp) was falsely sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit and exiled to Australia by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who lusted after his beautiful wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly). Now, going under the alias of "Sweeney Todd," he returns home to London only to discover that Lucy had taken her own life and his now teenage daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is in the custody of Turpin. He enlists the help of quirky pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) as he re-opens his barbershop, cutting hair and slashing throats until he finally has a chance to get his hands on Turpin and his troll-like associate Beadly Banford (a delightfully creepy Timothy Spall). Complicating things further is a developing feud with him and another local barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), which results in one of the more entertaining musical numbers in the film.
Sweeny Todd is not the kind of movie musical where you should expect show-stopping tunes you’ll be humming weeks after you see it. Actually, a few of them are pretty dull and drawn out. Across The Universe this isn’t, but it does have some big moments like the fantastic duet "Pretty Women," with Depp and Rickman, who work really well together. What the music does do very effectively is convey an interesting story that’s well acted by the entire cast. The singing is okay, but not great. Simon Cowell would probably have a field day ripping the thin vocal performances apart, but the bottom line is they’re as good as they need to be given the material and considering these are actors not singers. Supposedly Depp has never really sung before so taking that into account he actually did a fine job. Despite being a little young for the role he remains the perfect choice to play a weird outcast with internal rage. He’s always had that territory well covered and he’s brilliant again here.
Unknown co-stars Jayne Wisener (who looks exactly like a young Kirsten Dunst) and Jamie Campbell Bower (who plays Sweeney’s right-hand man) fare even better with the singing and their forbidden romance storyline interested me more at times than Sweeney’s revenge. These two have hardly acted in anything of note before, but you’d never know it. They’re just about the only characters you don’t have to feel guilty about rooting for in the film. Helena Bonham Carter once again transcends her natural quirkiness to add some much needed warmth to Mrs. Lovett, while Rickman really chews into the scenery as Turpin. The entire third act of the picture is basically a total blood bath and the ending, while completely appropriate, will probably leave some viewers feeling deflated.
Is it fair to judge a film in the context of a director’s previous work? Probably not, but it’s unavoidable when you’re talking about someone with a vision as unique and original as Burton’s. He’s an artist more than a filmmaker, which sometimes causes our emotional connection to the material to be severed. The main problem with the film, as with a lot of Burton’s previous efforts, is his characters tend to be so weird, troubled and dark that it’s hard to become really involved with any of them and the film suffers a little as a result. While it’s common for directors revisit certain themes in many of their films, Burton seems to be the only one who has essentially made the same movie over and over again for the past decade or more. They always focus on a weird, troubled outcast. They’re shot the same. They appear to have the same production and costume design. He even uses many of the same actors, regardless of whether or not they’re right for the roles. As usual, his work is a marvel to look and has a distinct feel but I couldn’t help but think his act is starting to get a little tired as I watched this.
Even his best films, like Batman and Big Fish, which deviated ever so slightly from the Burton template, didn’t reach the masterpiece level they could have because of his weirdness fetish. I’m not saying he should go off and make a fun, Disney kids film or anything, but something at least somewhat different would be a nice change of pace. Depp has fallen into a similar trap as well, as just once I’d like to see him attempt to play a character that isn’t some kind of disenfranchised freak.
He’s widely regarded as one of our best actors, but for me he’s yet to take on the variety of roles necessary to prove all his supporters true. Having said that, no one could have played THIS ROLE better than he does, which is why I’m so curious to see what would happen if he actually attempted to portray a normal human being in a straightforward serious drama. I’m all for actors taking risks but Depp just might be the only one who’s taken one too many and has gone so far in covering up his teen idol beginnings that he’s now in danger of covering up his talent as well.
It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of musicals and usually stay way from them so that this year featured two I did enjoy represents a big step forward, even if I respected this more than I necessarily enjoyed it. But it does have that twisted brilliance and dark sense of humor that only the team of Burton and Depp can provide and a fascinating story to match. Fans of those two know what they’re getting into here and won’t be disappointed at all. It’s as good an adaptation of Sondheim’s musical as was possible and this was the right direction to take in bringing it to the screen. But anyone else searching for a mainstream crowd pleaser should look elsewhere. Sweeney Todd is Tim Burton’s Gothic nightmare set to music and as that it’s successful.