REVIEW: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Produced by: Richard D. Zanuck, John Logan, Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald
Written by: John Logan (screenplay)
Edited by: Chris Lebenzon
Cinematography by: Dariusz Wolksi
Music by: Stephen Sondheim
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Ed Sanders, Jayne Wisener, Jamie Campbell
Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Sacha Baron Cohen
Based on the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler and characters created by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest
I haven’t seen it myself, but, given its large fanbase, I’d say that it’s a surprise that it took nearly 30 years for Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1979 musical to see a film adaptation released. Of course, considering that most of those years were pretty lacking in any non-animated musicals, this would have definitely been a misguided notion. And even if musicals were not considered the box office poison they were considered to be throughout the 80s and 90s (again, provided that you were not animated), then no doubt the very nature of Sweeney Todd would be enough to hold it back. It’s a grim, macabre musical that dares to shock audiences with its rampant and bloody violence, songs with swear words in them, and even a dark sense of humor largely built around some sneaky cannibalism on the main characters’ part. This is some dark material, and any adaptation during that time would have no doubt led to the film bombing and further sullying the idea that musical films have their place in this world. Luckily, fortune smiled upon musical film fans, as not only did the early 2000s provide studios with an unexpected small boom in that very market, with Moulin Rouge! and Chicago gaining both popular and critical acclaim (not to mention money), but the 80s and 90s also saw the rise in popularity in the one director who could conceivably adapt the play for film faithfully and still not have it bomb based solely on name recognition alone. I’m talking, of course, about Tim Burton.
The director has pretty much made a career for himself bringing grim and strange material to mainstream audiences and somehow raking in all the money, so not recognizing the potential in the synergy between the box office trends, longstanding fans of the stage play, and name recognition of its director and stars alone would have made anyone who didn’t jump at the chance to capitalize on all that look like the biggest moron in the industry. (Of course, Sam Mendes was originally slated to direct, but, as fine a director as he is, it’s probably for the best that Hollywood came to its senses and righted that before it was too late.) The only potential problem with the film, however, was that Burton is one of those directors who, though undoubtedly powerful, he’s also seemingly completely willing to make the necessary changes to the story to make it fit into the bite-sized, studio-friendly version that would undoubtedly leave some fans of the stage play wanting. From what I’ve heard from my one friend who is also a massive theatre geek, that was, indeed, an issue for her.
Perhaps, though, I should first explain the plot of the film (and the play it’s based on), if you haven’t heard it before. The film opens on a ship making its way from the ominous fog and docking in London. Aboard the ship is a weary and angry man whose hatred for the uncaring city is readily apparent, but he’s dead set upon completing his mission there, one that’s been weighing down on his heart and soul for eighteen years: vengeance upon the man who stole his life, Judge Turpin.
Turpin, jealous of the happiness and people in the man’s life at the time, had used his influence in the city to have him falsely arrested and exiled to a faraway prison while stealing away the man’s wife and their young daughter, who would grow up not knowing her father. At the time, the man was known as Benjamin Barker, a talented and renowned barber and happy family man, but now he’s returned to London almost unrecognizable and complete with a new name: Sweeney Todd. He returns to his place of business and opens up shop again, plotting for the day when he can entrap Judge Turpin in his chair and slit his throat open for what he had done.
A few roadblocks do exist, however, and chief among them is that his operation is located above the dingy meat pie shop of Mrs. Lovett, who would have no doubt grown suspicious of her upstairs neighbor who would have looked eerily familiar to her. Though she is a possible threat to his scheme, and though her open admission to making “the worst pies in London” would be reason enough to off her and put everyone out of their misery, Todd welcomes her as a partner in crime when she proves to be a great source of information, including what happened to his family in the time that he was gone and providing background on all the important players he will encounter on his quest. In return, Todd provides her with the perfect business partnership and the freshest free exotic meat that money could never buy: human flesh picked from the bones of Todd’s victims. Scoff if you must, but the revamped menu is a massive hit – sure to grab the attention of Judge Turpin.
If you have the stomach to handle such material, then I’m certain that even those who aren’t familiar with the stage musical or even the 19th century story upon which both productions are ultimately based will find much to like about Burton’s adaptation. The grimy, filthy atmosphere is perfectly suited to the material, and, while I’m not so knowledgeable about the technical aspects of music, I know what I like, and most of the songs present throughout the film are actually quite pretty in composition and in contrast with the overall tone of the production. That being said, fans of the stage version may find fault with a lot of the cuts that were made, sometimes eliminating songs altogether and at other times shortening them. This may be less apparent to some, but even having not seen the play myself, I also felt like everything was a little too rushed, with the songs moving the narrative forward but never developing the characters themselves within it.
A perfect example of this is the relationship between the two side characters Anthony and Johanna, whose only interactions throughout are exchanging longing glances through a window and singing about either wanting to escape captivity or realize their distant love with one another. The songs themselves are quite lovely, but other than that, I couldn’t have really cared that much less for these two beyond the girl’s connection to Sweeney Todd himself. Similar but better is the song “Not While I’m Around,” sung by the little boy who confesses his infatuation with Mrs. Lovett. Not only does it further develop the characters and their relationship, the affectionate exchange has significant and heartbreaking ramifications later on, as well. Any issues mentioned here could very well be something present in the stage production, I recognize, but considering that Burton was able to take his liberties with this, if that was the case, Burton did not manage to quell them with his version.
I wouldn’t say that the rushed character development completely derails the movie, however, and, as I said before, the songs that are present are well composed and often funny. The actors all do their own singing, which is admirable, and even if they’re not the lead actors here, all three younger actors – Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, and Ed Sanders – have beautiful voices, while Helena Bonham Carter, as Mrs. Lovett, finds a perfect balance between listenable singing and staying completely in character. Johnny Depp, who was nominated for an Oscar in this role, makes for a menacing but also tragic Sweeny Todd, but his singing voice, while not wretched, is kind of flat and lacking in the theatrical power that I felt was necessary for the role. Heck, I would have probably preferred that Burton invited another one of his mainstays onto the film and had Danny Elfman come in to dub Depp’s singing parts. Anyone who’s listened to the music of The Nightmare Before Christmas knows Elfman’s incredible singing voice as Jack Skellington didn’t sacrifice the acting for mere vocal theatrics. While this may be just one more quibble with the film, considering that he’s playing the lead character, it is a pretty major one.
Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd is welcome entertainment and a solid musical film that stands out for all the horrific, visceral elements it does succeed in executing, though, and I’d be hard pressed to say that anyone I could think of would have pulled it off as well as Burton. Perhaps even fans of the play would enjoy it as an abbreviated version for whenever the craving comes for another serving of Sondheim and Wheeler’s play? Again, having not seen that version, I don’t really know, but as a fanatic of film, I’m just happy that when Halloween comes around, there’s another musical that people can rave about beyond just Nightmare Before Christmas and Rocky Horror.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5