Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Director: Tim Burton

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s not often that a director like Tim Burton can shop for a script on the ready-to-wear rack. It’s kind of a shame that Sweeney Todd, a 1979 Broadway hit that won eight Tony awards, seemed to have anticipated Burton’s career to the letter. I saw this audacious musical when it first hit the boards in New York—more Metropolitan Opera than Tin Pan Alley—and remember what a shocking sensation it was. If this campfire horror story hadn’t been such a natural fit for Burton to bring to the big screen, he might have tried harder to differentiate it from his other works, not that any Burton/Depp/Harry Potter fanboys will mind. For musical theatre fans and most of the rest of the moviegoing population, Burton and his alter ego, Johnny Depp, get in their own way far too often to make this film anything near the diabolical happening the stage version was. Nonetheless, the glorious music of Stephen Sondheim on the glorious sound systems most theatres have these days manage to create, all on their own, an emotionally satisfying journey to the heart of hell.

Horror films do opening credits exceptionally well, and Sweeney Todd weaves us through them with a luscious stream of blood, like Jackson Pollock dripping a trail of crimson red across a canvas of words. Todd was an artist of sorts in the art of murder, drawing a straight line with impeccably sharpened razors across the lumpy landscape of his victims’ throats, so I was very intrigued by this opening.

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In the preamble, we meet Sweeney Todd (Depp) on a ship closing in on its last port of call, London. He thanks a young seaman, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), who spotted him floating on the open ocean and secured his rescue. The boat-docking scene is a beautiful composition, almost like a JMW Turner painting. When Anthony asks Sweeney if he may look the older man up after they are both settled, Todd says he is likely to be found in the vicinity of Fleet Street. At this point, a dizzying animation ripped off from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and giving the impression that we’re about to watch The Corpse Bride speeds us through the dingy back alleys of London to a haunted house of a shop on a corner. Lovett’s meat pies are advertised on the sign below a slope-roofed second story, the scene of many future crimes to come.

Todd cringes in Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) filthy shop as she nonchalantly sings of her talents in making “The Worst Pies in London” and smashes gigantic cockroaches in 3/4 time. It is then that Todd inquires about the availability of the space above her shop. “It’s available,” she says. Nobody wants to rent it. “They says it’s haunted.” She takes him up the outside staircase and shows him a threadbare room. In “Poor Thing,” she tells of the misfortunes of the Barker family—poor Benjamin, a simple barber, convicted on trumped-up charges and transported to Australia by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), his beautiful wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) raped by the judge and driven to swallow arsenic, and their baby girl Johanna adopted by the judge. Lovett catches a look in Todd’s eye and exclaims, “It’s you! Benjamin Barker!” “No,” he says, “that man is dead. The name is Sweeney Todd.” He removes some floorboards and lifts out a fancy box. In it are several beautifully crafted razors. He intends to open his shop again where he will give one future customer—Judge Turpin—the closest shave of his life.

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Mrs. Lovett helps Todd gain recognition as a barber of excellence by taking him to the square where the current barber of choice, Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), holds forth. Pirelli’s young assistant, Toby (Ed Sanders), sings “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” to hawk Pirelli’s bogus hair-growth tonic. Todd accuses Pirelli of selling the rubes piss and challenges him to a shave-off. Judge Turpin’s slimy partner in crime, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), will judge who gives the fastest, closest shave. While Pirelli preens and sings “The Contest,” Todd easily bests him with lightning speed. Bamford, having seen his skills, talks Todd up to Turpin, who has decided to marry Johanna (Jayne Wisener) to prevent someone younger from taking her away. He has already had Bamford thrash young Anthony, who has fallen in love with Johanna after watching and listening to her sing “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from the second-story window of Turpin’s home. Anthony has learned her name from a beggar woman in the street and sings the beautifully haunting “Johanna,” vowing to make her his.

In the meantime, Pirelli arrives at Todd’s shop, revealing himself to be a phony through and through. He’s a native Londoner who used to work in Todd’s shop and, realizing that Todd must be an escaped convict, threatens to go to the authorities if Todd doesn’t give him half his earnings. Enraged, Todd beats Pirelli senseless with a tea kettle and stuffs his body in a trunk. Toby comes up to look for his master, whose twitching hand is sticking out of the trunk. Todd persuades him to go down to Mrs. Lovett; he then finishes the job with his razor. Right after this “rehearsal,” Todd is gleeful as he spies Turpin coming up the stairs.

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Johanna motivates Turpin’s entry to Todd’s shop, where Sweeney is poised to carry out his revenge. The pair sing “Pretty Women,” a song so beautiful that it manages to triumph over Rickman’s croakings. Johanna also motivates Anthony to burst in on Todd at his crucial moment of revenge, declaring he is set to take Johanna away that very night. Turpin vows never to return to the shop and to make sure Anthony never sees Johanna again. The shock of losing his chance to kill Turpin and see his daughter again sends Todd off an edge to which he was always very, very close. He sings “Epiphany,” announcing the arrival of the demon inside him set to wreck vengeance on all humanity: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit/And the vermin of the world inhabit it./But not for long…”

In a macabre act of economy, Mrs. Lovett decides not to “waste” Pirelli; she and Todd sing the hilarious “A Little Priest” to illustrate the various virtues of different types of men as meat pie fillings. The film bounds through one gruesome, random murder after another in Todd’s chair, now rigged to flip up and deposit corpses down a shaft to Mrs. Lovett’s oven room for butchering and grinding. Predictably, the shop thrives. Suspicions are aroused in Toby (now Mrs. Lovett’s helper), an apparently crazed street person, and eventually, the authorities. Events move swiftly to a just and murderous end for many of the major players.

Despite an extremely lurid plot, marvelous music, and cleverly descriptive lyrics, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd often plays flat and lifeless. Compare “A Little Priest” by Depp/Bonham Carter with the Broadway version by Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. The movie version is a good deal shorter—not necessarily a flaw in my mind—but Bonham Carter puts absolutely no personality into her interpretation. Burton puts the humor into the song visually by turning his camera on a priest, a poet, and other characters mentioned in the lyrics. Ironically, Bonham Carter gives the most emotionally connected performance in the cast, but in a sung-through piece like Sweeney Todd, not being able to emote lyrically puts a real strain on visual interpretation for the bulk of the movie and highlights the limitations of casting stars who aren’t trained singers or dancers to boost box office.

In another bit of irony, Johnny Depp is very good at interpreting lyrics—perhaps because he is a musician as well as an actor—but has a catalog of three facial expressions for Todd: diabolically polite, distractedly brooding, and angrily brooding. The sequence in which Mrs. Lovett imagines a quaint, middle-class life with an unfailingly morose Todd in “By the Sea” would have been funnier if we hadn’t already seen Depp locked in a brood of epic proportions for two-thirds of the film.

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The look of this film is very inconsistent. We’re all familiar by now with Burton’s blue/gray palette, but Sweeney Todd stretches this to very close to monochrome in several scenes. It’s most glaring in the scene where Todd challenges Pirelli, whose flamboyant blue satin creates a staggering visual contrast that the plot does not yet warrant; Todd isn’t in full demonic mode, and Mrs. Lovett is very much alive, with a passion for Todd that leads her far astray. It’s rather a relief for the eyes when geysers of blessedly red blood flow from the necks of Todd’s victims in the second half of the film. I was starting to think Burton had to ration his color film stock for the couple of fantasy/flashback sequences that are supposed to let us know that happiness is always in color. Honestly, Tim, we’re not that dumb.

Sweeney Todd is a musical for grown-ups, but I could never escape the fact that this film was really made for fanboys, particularly with the casting of Harry Potter alumni Timothy Spall and the unfortunate Alan Rickman, who used to have an interesting career before he started playing villainous characters. I had a few moments respite when the superb voice and melancholy air of Jayne Wisener, in her screen debut, reminded me of why I went to see the picture in the first place. Jamie Campbell Bower had an oddly right period look to him and projected a decent singing voice as well. Ed Sanders also was excellent as Toby. It’s a shame Wisener and Campbell Bower had so little screen time.

I am a fan of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp—quite a big fan, actually. But they bit off more than they could chew in tackling Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece.

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