I hate to have to throw myself into the fires of minority hell, but I’m compelled to vote no on Tim Burton’s dour, overly dark and overly bloody Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This was a tough call. The film left me with ambivalent feelings. I must say that I found the first half of Sweeney Todd to be quite marvelous. The film was ambitious, quaint, humorous, and I was hooked from the first crescendo in the opening credits. But somewhere along the way towards the end, it lost me. The second half is without any kind of payoff. I found the denouement, in particular, to be one big bloody, abstruse, overblown mess. Maybe I’m being a little too hard on the film or maybe I shouldn’t even be blaming the film at all. After all, the virtuoso Burton and writer John Logan are only trying to faithfully adapt a Broadway play. Whatever the reason, I left the theater unsatisfied.
The film tells the tale of Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) and his transition from happily married father-figure to the Demon Barber of Fleet Street known as Sweeney Todd. Barker was taken and thrown into a godforsaken prison by a judge named Turpin (Alan Rickman), who fell in love with Barker’s wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelley), and decided he wanted her all to himself. Barker escapes from prison with the help of a young sailor named Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) and returns to London fifteen years later to learn that his wife is dead and that Judge Turpin adopted Barker’s daughter, Johanna (newcomer Jayne Wisener), and keeps her locked away in his home. The man known as Benjamin Barker is gone and is now Sweeney Todd, London’s most qualified barber with a mania for revenge. With the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of a squalid meat pie shop, he forms a plan to get Judge Turpin into his chair so he can slit his throat.
There’s a lot of throat slitting in Sweeney Todd and far too much. Burton said he wanted the film to be bloody, which is okay. The problem is that the throat slitting galore is the result of a superfluous plot development in which Sweeney becomes a deranged serial killer with no compunction for his deeds. Because of this, his character becomes more and more difficult to like and thus harder to root for. It was pretty painful to see the film collapse on itself. I wish I could dissect the messy conclusion, but for the sake of spoilers, I won’t go into any further detail.
The two Burton regulars, Depp and Carter, are not to blame here; they are very good and work wonderfully together. Their voices are not quite Broadway material but they are par for the course. Depp is eerie and poignant in his performance and I did come away with a memorable character, if only memorable for the wrong reasons because I wasn’t sure if I liked him very much by the end. Carter, in my opinion, is the best of the cast, turning in one of the very best performances of her career. She is pitch-perfect for her supporting role.
Harry Potter veterans Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall are also well-cast. Rickman makes for an easy villain to hate and Spall is always great as a loyal, shrewd right-hand man. As for the young talents of Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, and newcomer Ed Sanders as a slave boy named Toby, they are all very impressive and Sweeney Todd should give each of them a career boost. Making a most welcomed comedic appearance is Borat fame Sacha Boran Cohen as Sweeney’s barbering rival.
Easily the biggest strength of the film is the mesmerizing music by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the original music for the Broadway play. Thank goodness Burton and Co. got the music right, seeing how the film is first and foremost, a musical. Sweeney Todd is destined to receive Academy Award nominations in that department. I also liked the look of the film, shot in a monochromatic style. Credit Burton, who continues to show why he is on the short list of the most imaginative directors working today (quality of the film notwithstanding), cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Carribean), production designer Dante Ferretti (2006’s The Black Dahlia) and costume designer Colleen Atwood (2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha).
You can see that I wanted to like Sweeney Todd but I just felt like it struck all the wrong notes in the final 45 minutes. Burton nails the first half of the film by showing a man filled with nostalgia who cares about nothing more than redeeming himself and obtaining vengeance, but to my disliking and for reasons beyond my comprehension, Todd goes from a likable and tragic figure to a killer of strangers who have nothing to do with his misfortunes. At the end of the day, I decided that I did not like Sweeney Todd, the character I wanted to cheer on, and thus I did not like the film.
||Release Date: December 7, 2007
Rated: R for graphic bloody violence.
Running Time: N/A
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bohnam Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: John Logan (screenplay), Stephen Sondheim (musical), Hugh Wheeler (musical), Christopher Bond (musical adaptation)
Studio: Dreamworks SKG
Official Website: Click Here