SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Finally, the twisted saga of Sweeney Todd will be haunting me in a good way. For the rest of the world, the notion of gothic film director Tim Burton adapting Stephen Sondheim's musical about a murderous barber seemed like the best idea ever. I, however, was less than sure about this whole Sweeney affair, given that I was tortured by it in the early ‘80s.
You see, I had cable television back then, and we had but one pay movie channel – Spotlight. And whenever I was hoping to catch another screening of Star Wars all I would find was the 1982 filmed version of the Broadway show. I knew from my handy little Spotlight guide book that it was about a serial killer, and while that sounded intriguing, I just couldn't force myself to watch it when I knew I could be seeing Wookiees instead.
I swear they should have just changed the station name to The Sweeney Todd Channel, because as I pored over that little booklet it was all I would ever see. Sweeney Todd starring Angela Lansbury (which led to my confused thinking that she played the role of the barber) would air thirty times a day, punctuated by a brief oasis-like screening of Clash of the Titans.
So when I heard that a new adaptation was being shot, my initial thoughts ran to Mrs. Potts offing people. Or Jessica Fletcher doing the same and solving her own foul deeds. (“I did it! Case closed!”) Both Angela Lansbury and boredom had become synonymous with Sweeney Todd in my mind, and the fact that one of my favorite film directors was on the job didn't sway my reactionary queasiness. This was going to have to be one hell of a film to get me over this acute case of Post Lansburyan Stress Disorder.
It is one hell of a film.
Nobody was surprised to find Burton casting regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the film, but I was shocked to see a supporting cast bereft of the usual suspects. Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and even Sacha Baron Cohen are onboard for their first forays into Timtown, and they have to sing to boot!
Marketing filmed versions of musicals is a tricky thing, and while we are returning to a mindset that allows such things to exist again, for a while it was about the strangest thing ever to hear perfectly good actors piping into song during a realistically shot movie. Baz Luhrman really kicked things back into gear with Moulin Rouge, and with Mamma Mia! slated for release next year it seems like the cinematic musical may be back to stay.
Yet in this case, nobody really wanted to spill the beans to the emo crowd that the supremely gory film they were about to see contained only a handful of spoken dialogue. The Burtonites will immediately grasp it, for he's already been involved in a pair of twisted musicals (The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, the latter sharing the same two costars as Todd), even though this marks his first live action one.
Also shocking is that Burton's favorite scorer Danny Elfman is not involved in the film, but that's because it's a direct translation of the Stephen Sondheim musical. What leftover tweaking and reorchestration that needed to be done was undertaken by Jonathan Tunick. There's an onslaught of music in the film, as it's really an opera at heart. Unlike the dreadfully annoying Andrew Lloyd Webber songs weighing down Joel Schumacher's film adaptation of The Phantom Of the Opera, here they are actually quite good and enhance to story. Sondheim isn't squeamish of embracing the dark subject matter, and while some of the purer characters sing clear and true in strong, unsullied voices (i.e. traditional Broadway fare), most of the work is strangely syncopated and accented by atonal violin melodies.
The story of Sweeney Todd has been twisted and reshaped for decades, so the aim here is to stick with the plot of the Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler version, which was itself based on a 1973 stage play of the tale as reinvented by Christopher Bond. Here Todd is no mere monster, but a once-virtuous barber named Benjamin Barker whose wife and life were usurped and destroyed by the villainous Judge Turpin (Rickman). Depp continues his trend of creating memorable characters, and here he looks like a living version of the Burgermeister from the stop motion Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town TV special.
The film begins as Barker returns to London with the aid of a young sailor named Anthony Hope (a very good Jamie Campbell Bower). These early shots establish the dank look of the film, and I nearly squealed with glee at the underlit shots of these two characters, barely emerging from the darkness surrounding them. The singing begins at once, with Depp vocally tearing into the city as if all of its inhabitants were inherently evil. And just to make sure that you know that this isn't a musical for the little ones, copious usages of the s-bomb are employed.
Now operating under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd (it's never made clear how he comes up with that monicker), Barker returns to the site of his old home and introduces himself to the resignedly dour Nellie Lovett (Bonham-Carter). She's perfect for this role, and her character is ultimately the most twisted and delightful. The meat pies she sells are horrible concoctions filled with bugs and rancid animal flesh, but she seems perfectly fine with this.
Sensing a kindred spirit in Todd, she quickly forms a bond with him and informs him of the vile deeds that befell his wife after his exile. You have to hand it to Depp for bringing so very much to a character that is essentially a one-note robot bent on revenge. He's a similar entity to that of The Crow, for while he holds no ill will towards young master Hope he is a clear cut nihilist who shows no interest in human relations while there's bloody work to do. Revenge is the only thing on his mind, and he decides to reopen business in order to lure his targets to their graves.
There is one light moment as Todd challenges Baron Cohen's Signor Adolfo Pirelli, who claims that he is the personal barber to the King of Naples. He also tries peddling hair growth tonic to the populace, which Todd recognizes as a pungent mixture of urine and ink. The ensuing 'shave-off' between the two master barbers leads to a number of plot threads, and introduces us to the character of the young Tobias Ragg (Ed Sanders), an abused assistant with a taste for gin. Todd also gains the trust of Judge Turpin's violent, foppish assistant Beadle Bamsford (Spall, again playing a sniveling henchman) and invites him over for a free trim.
Just to complicate things further, Turpin has become obsessed with his young ward Johanna (Jayne Wisener), who is actually Barker's daughter. The bent Judge keeps her locked away in the top floor of his mansion, and as she sings her woes and stares longingly out the window her eye catches that of young Hope. This evolves into a traditional tale of forbidden love, and while this initially feels less than enthralling compared to the gleefully grim tale of Todd, these morally grounded characters are ultimately important to complete the tale.
But in the meantime, morality be damned! It's so much fun grinning along as Todd makes short work of his victims. After a failed attempt at slicing the throat of the Judge himself, Sweeney takes out his frustrations on the denizens of London. Mrs. Lovett is all too eager to join in on the ruddy fun, and her nonchalant dedication to death and things most dire is a total hoot.
There's a great scene where she discovers Todd's first victim, stuffed inside a large chest like a broken doll. We actually believe she has a moral compass for a second as she gasps in horror, but she's merely surprised that Todd killed somebody for no good reason. After he explains that he did have reason, she shrugs off the outrage like someone who just lost a nickel and gets back to business as usual.
As it is an integral part of this well-known story, it's no secret that this gruesome work evolves into a plot to turn Todd's slashed victims into a very special ingredient for Mrs. Lovett's pies. So much like the concept of “selling rich wives' fat asses back to them” in the form of soap in Fight Club, these two ghoulish creatures decide to off people who won't be missed and serve them up as a delicacy to their fellow townsfolk.
This is dark, dark stuff, and it helps to be a fan of over the top, Grand Guignol storytelling. Tim Burton was certainly the best guy for the job, and only he can put a smile on your face as you watch victim after victim fall from Todd's specially rigged barber's chair into a dumping chute, dropping onto their heads with a sickening crunch. The wounds inflicted by Todd's razors are also grisly, exaggerated affairs complete with geysers of blood akin to those seen in Kill Bill or Beat Takeshi's Zatoichi.
The fact that these disturbing visuals are accompanied by (at times joyful) music makes the whole thing feel that much more subversive and irreverent. Todd even serenades his instruments of destruction, calling his unused razors “his friends” and promising them “precious rubies”. Mrs. Lovett lingers around him in these moments, trying to express the fact that she fancies the man, but finds him unresponsive to anything that doesn't involve crimson geysers.
Thus the numerous levels of good and bad evolve, for as evil as Todd is, he is still willing to help his young friend Hope achieve a replica of the happy life he once had. Yet he's unable to accept such joys for himself, as evidenced in the hysterically funny scene (and one of the few in the film with a rich color palette) where Nellie details her wishes to marry the man and move away to a picturesque seaside locale. The image of the dismally pale, vampiric-looking Depp glowering on the sands while wearing an old fashioned swimsuit is a delight.
And while the business of feeding people with their fellow man booms at first, trouble begins to brew as a strange vagrant woman (Laura Michelle Kelly, the only cast member to come from the Broadway production) routinely haunts the location. Even their loyal servant Tobias begins to question the nature of Todd, incurring a heartbreaking rift in Nellie's dreams of escaping their foul deeds as a family unit.
Johnny Depp has been a pseudo-musician for years, but he was forced to really step up to the mic here and try some new things. He stated that his singing was influenced by Anthony Newley and Iggy Pop, and I find that his delivery works. I'm not here to hear the fullest voice possible belt out a flawless performance; I'm here to see Depp act his ass off – utilizing lyrical songcraft in the process. His best moments are when he growls, and really brings that punk ethos to his outbursts of anger and frustration. Bonham Carter also does a fine job at weaving countermelodies against his themes, and has a few of her own moments alone in the spotlight as well.
Everyone is at the top of their game here, as the cast is uniformly excellent. Production designer Dante Ferretti creates a grimier, colorless take on London's Fleet Street that fits right in with Burton's vision of the world as a living Edward Gorey illustration. The costume design by Colleen Atwood is varied and detailed, from the arrogantly bright colors of Baron Cohen's threads to some incredible leather jackets as worn by both Depp and Spall. And of course Dariusz Wolski's cinematography is simply stunning, capturing a bleached look that renders blacks all-encompassing and skin tones a steely grayish hue.
As someone who's never been a fan of musicals, this is the musical for me: dark, funny, and emotionally charged but not in a saccharine fashion. Bring on more murderous melodies – perhaps an adaptation of David Fincher's Se7en for the Broadway crowd! Burton's Sweeney Todd quickly joins Big Fish, Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands as one of his best films. Lansbury, thou art vanquished!