Over the last decade or so director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp have become synonymous with one another, or at least Burton’s work has with Depp. Their collaborations on films like Edward Scissorhands, The Corpse Bride, and Sleepy Hollow have been dark — though typically whimsical — gothic tales of deceit, unrequited love (of one kind or another), and death. Or the dead. Their most recent project, a horror-esque musical Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, adapted from a stage musical written by Stephen Sondheim, treats viewers to more of the same; much more, in fact, but without as much whim.
Burton’s films have often been characterized as dark comedies, a classification usually correct, but Sweeney Todd is more horror film than comedy, significantly more dark than funny. It is the tale of a man named Benjamin Barker (Depp), a barber in London, who when young was married to a beautiful woman with whom he had a daughter. However, a local magistrate, Judge Turpin, played by Alan Rickman with the same austere, scowling persona that he plays Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, falls in love with Barker’s wife and concocts a plan to have Barker shipped to prison. Turpin takes the woman into his home and adopts Barker’s daughter as his ward.
Fifteen years later, a bitter and angry Barker has returned to London, this time with a new name: Sweeney Todd. He returns to his old home and his place of business those many years before where he meets Mrs Lovett, proud creator of “the worst meat pies in London,” played by long-time Burton girlfriend, Helena Bonham Carter. With the aid of Mrs. Lovett, who falls in love with him, Todd plots his revenge on the magistrate.
Meanwhile, Todd’s young friend, Anthony falls in love with Turpin’s ward/Todd’s now teenage daughter, Johanna, and will stop at nothing to steal her away from the cruel Judge. Of course, Turpin is none to happy with this development and threatens to kill the boy.
Todd re-opens his barber shop and proceeds, in fits of rage, to slit the unsuspecting throats of his patrons, the remains of which Lovett uses to make meat pies. Together they release their collective pain upon the streets of London as they sing how “we all deserve to die.” Soon, somehow, business is booming for both. Eventually, Todd finds Turpin in his barber chair and his opportunity is before him; he has his chance to exact his revenge. Or does he?
Despite the slightly disturbing plot of the story, the film is a sight to see. That is, if you can get past the gruesome depictions of throats being cut and stabbed, and blood spewing every which way. Burton’s recreations of London streets are straight from a Dickens novel, dark and haunting, brilliantly done — incredibly real. I particularly enjoyed the costume design by Colleen Atwood (Chicago).
Indeed, what makes the film work is it’s style. Like each of Burton’s films, it is uniquely his. His camera gracefully and artfully glides about the sets, capturing the singing and dancing and bloodletting with a calm and precise purpose, much Todd’s own actions in the film. Burton is wonderful at placing a viewier in the midst of the action, whether in Todd’s barber shop, in a sewer, or in Mrs. Lovett’s dreams (the most whimsical part of an otherwise morbid film). He also masterfully twists the emotions of the viewers as he begins his tale by creating a character for whom the audience feels sympathy but for whom, by film’s end, they likely feel little more than contempt. In fact, by the time the credits roll, many viewers may want to vomit at Todd’s callous and sordid behavior.
Furthermore, the cast is excellent. Despite his more-rock ‘n roll- than-opera voice, Depp turns in what may be his best performance yet (yes, better than his tripping, twitching, brilliant Jack Sparrow!). He is more than sufficiently creepy. Bonham-Carter does a fine job, though her singing voice leaves something to be desired, and Rickman is perfect as the snarly Turpin. Despite only being in a few scenes, Sacha Baron Cohen, of Borat fame, turns in an outrageous performance, nicely in tune with the mood and the craze of the film a whole.
But what keeps this film from being a masterpiece, as some critics have hailed it, is the fact that some of the characters are far too one dimensional to be taken seriously: Mrs. Lovett, for example. She is creepy and crazy, but not so much that she is truly scary. Burton gives no clues as to why she is the way she is. Nor does he give clues as to Anthony’s origin. He focuses so exclusively on Todd’s background that the effectiveness of the other characters suffers.
In addition, there are gaping holes in the plot. Why do those who live near the barber shop not notice that all who go into the shop fail to come out? Why do so many of the characters fail to recognize each other? Yes, it has been several years in some cases, but sufficient evidence exists for them to put two and two together. And, in a final, climactic scene, evidence appears which proves Todd and Lovett’s devious mischief — why does it take so long for this evidence to appear?
Depp’s Todd is similar, in more ways than just his killing spree, to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Both see the evil of men around them and are angered by it and decide to take things into their own hands. Both men try to play God. But in the end, do either men do any good? Do either change the world? Likely not. They both clarify their own situations, but in the end the world is still a dark, dark place. Both characters are the antithesis of grace, but both men are evidence of mankind’s need for grace. It is ironic, is it not, that such morbid and bloody stories as Sweeney Todd and Taxi Driver can be poignent reminders of the grace that is around us, the grace that does change the world, the grace that is greater than revenge.
In many ways Sweeney Todd is a wearying film to watch. Void of any grace, it is simply the tale of men and women who hate one another and will do whatever it takes to have things their way. Yet, fans of Burton and Depp will, once again, love the film for it’s wonderful style and gothic sensibilities. But, be warned, it is not The Corpse Bride or Edward Scissorhands, it is not nearly so optimistic as that.
Despite it’s inconsistencies Sweeney Todd is a valuable, if not highly entertaining, film, though it is certainly not a film for all audiences.
3.5 out of 5 stars.