Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street does anything
revolutionary, it’s that the picture allows filmgoers to see the
result of director Tim Burton finally being permitted to
physically depict his usual set of unrelentingly violent themes.
Burton has long been a filmmaker associated with violence,
despite the fact that he has never tackled truly gruesome
material (aside from Sleepy Hollow, which seemed too
classical to be deemed “graphic”) before making this movie.
Viewers merely had to imagine the metaphysical violence implied
between Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Batman and the Joker,
and Pee-wee Herman and (I suppose) his Audience. But—fear not—Sweeney
Todd allows Burton to work out any repressed tendencies that
he may have felt when making his previous films. The corpses
stack up and the blood flies.
disappointing that, handed such creative freedom, Burton has
essentially made the most boring film of his entire career.
Sweeney Todd may be horrifically violent—even I cringed at a
particular montage involving one head being severed after
another—but it’s also lacking any provocative edge to speak of
because it is so utterly redundant. Once the shock initially
thrust upon the viewer by the film’s outrageous premise wears
off, there really isn’t anything especially engaging about the
film. To compensate for its stunning blandness, the picture
tries to wow the viewer by being a visual wonder, but
cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s nearly-colorless vision for
Sweeney Todd only works to further the viewer’s disinterest
in the trite material.
The barber of a
protagonist is played by Johnny Depp, who, along with
also-engaging co-star Helena Bonham Carter, injects Sweeney
Todd with nearly every one of the few faint signs of life
that it displays. While he does not deliver the Oscar-quality
work that many have rumored of, Depp certainly nails the
difficult task of making Sweeney both a sympathetic main
character and a terrifying villain. Sweeney’s tortured
back-story certainly helps this cause. In the film’s first
scene, he has just escaped from an undeserved prison-sentence
handed down to him by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman).
Turpin sent Sweeney away in order to steal Sweeney’s wife from
him. When he gets tired of her, Turpin sets his lustful sights
on his new ward, Sweeney’s beloved daughter Johanna (Jayne
discovers of what Turpin did while he was away, Sweeney vows to
murder Turpin and bring an end to Turpin’s abuse of power. He
plots to do this, using the weathered and unrecognizable
appearance that jail cast upon him as his disguise, by
encouraging Turpin to stop by his shop for a shave and then
slaying Turpin with his razorblade. Much to Sweeney’s disdain,
things don’t go as planned. Despite restoring his name as the
best shaver in all of London (after a head-to-head challenge
with Sacha Baron Cohen’s since-reigning champ, Signor Adolfo
Pirelli), Sweeney’s service is doubted by Turpin in an
unfortunate encounter between them. Sweeney must resort to
reformulating his plan of attack and, in the meantime, goes on a
killing spree of his clientele. His victims’ remains, of course,
are grinded and injected right into the meat pies of cohort Mrs.
Lovett (Bonham Carter), who runs a pub just under Sweeney’s
It should be
noted, of course, that the film was adapted from a beloved
Broadway musical, and that composer Stephen Sondheim’s musical
numbers are crucial to the story. Burton does a serviceable job
of capturing the joy of the songs, which usually offer reprieve
to the story’s non-stop moroseness. Regardless, these can’t help
but feel restrained in their recorded state. I suspect that much
of the delight of seeing Sweeney Todd onstage was the
viewer’s involvement in the live music. Because this
actor-audience connection is missing from the movie, the movie
can’t help but seem bland in its straightforwardness. The
material may have been a spectacle on Broadway because of the
involvement provoked by the lyrics and melodies; Burton’s film
needs something more in order for it to achieve this status, and
it regrettably never finds it.
I am likely
coming down a bit hard on Sweeney Todd because of the
expectations that I had for it given its notable pedigree. After
all, its source is much-admired, its director always manages to
be intriguing (even when he fails), and its lead actor was the
perfect choice for the role of the protagonist – how could I not
have expected something magnificent? Unfortunately, I fear that
this version of Sweeney Todd just wasn’t meant to
succeed: the movie’s small pleasures never overcome its one-note
execution. Burton may have gotten his chance to make a film as
repulsive and spine-tingling as he could’ve possibly hoped, but
it certainly didn’t turn out to be anything worth talking about.
12.22.2007 at the Edwards San Marcos 18 in San Marcos, CA.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet
Street is rated R and runs 117 minutes.
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