Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (review)
There Will Be Blood
Just hearing a description of it, you have to think, my god, my god, yes. The twisted, separated-at-birth twins Tim Burton and Johnny Depp taking on Stephen Sondheim’s gory opera about a murderous barber? Who else would you give it to? Who else could possibly do it justice? But then… wait: Burton’s movies have always been magnificent messes, all baroque spirals and curlicues of such lush, lacy darkness that more than earned forgiveness for the fractures in their creepy spiderweb delicacy… but forgiveness, indeed, was required, when Burton too often let his gloriously grim creations slip out of his control. Johnny Depp can pretty much do no wrong — if you mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I won’t hear you, la-la-la, I have my fingers in my ears — and may in fact be walking proof of the existence of God. But Tim Burton has not always been entirely successful, however laudable his audacity has always been.
But this is perfect. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street up on the big screen, all operatic gruesomeness and cobblestones-and-fog moodiness, is perfect. One of the most perfect movies ever, maybe, and sure to be pointed to for forever as the way to do a movie musical right. And the way to do horror, right, too.
I’ve never seen Sondheim’s stage version, and I know it has its fanatical adherents — they may be perturbed to discover that some songs have been truncated, and others excised altogether. (I’ve heard one or two purists say they can’t stand what Burton has done with it, even if Sondheim had his hand in the trimming.) It’s the nature of the, heh, beast: what works onstage doesn’t always work on film, and some of those songs that are needed to convey emotion and state of mind across the distance of a theater perhaps aren’t needed quite as much when we can get right in a character’s face. How do you adapt a big, bold opera to the intimate nature of film? Just like this.
And this really is intimate: Johnny Depp’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Corpse Bride) Sweeney Todd — a pseudonym he adopts upon his return to Victorian London after a long exile of unjust imprisonment, a nom de revenge as he plots to murder the judge who convicted him merely because he, the judge, coveted Todd’s wife — is a mass of balled-up anguish as he bites out Sondheim’s bitter lyrics about the cesspit that is London and the relentless weight of grief that haunts him. Johnny Depp sings! And well, too. But not with the smooth polish a professional singer would have brought to this… which is exactly right. The satisfying roughness to his vocals is entirely suited to the bleakness of this character and his story. Maybe you need an operatic tenor with lungs the size of dirigibles when this is on stage, but here, Depp’s raspy whispers are absolutely thrilling.
And the same goes for Helena Bonham Carter’s (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s former and again landlady and now his partner in crime. She’s not refined either, as a singer, but she devours Sondheim’s nastiness and regurgitates a cheerfully wicked character who is as distressing, in some ways, as she is evil. She longs for the oblivious and, it must be said, slightly dim Todd in a way that is resigned to rejection before she even gets her crush on, and in one sequence — which demonstrates how wonderfully Burton (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes) and screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, The Last Samurai) have cinema-tized Sondheim — she sings of her fantasy of their life together as husband and wife, but even in her daydreams, she can’t imagine Todd as anything other than the dour, dead-on-the-inside soul that we and she see him as.
All this almost too-intimate intimacy — part of the horror of this Sweeney Todd is how it feels, at times, as if we maybe shouldn’t know quite so much about these characters as we do — is perfectly counterbalanced by the deadpan drollery of it all. This is so hilariously sick and twisted, particularly if you’re not familiar with all the details and twists of Sondheim, that you can’t believe Burton dares to go so far as he does. Not just with the gallons of cherry-red blood that drenches the whole endeavor, but with the casualness with which certain doomed characters are dispatched, with the crunchy repetition of broken necks and limbs bending the wrong way, with how sportily the fates of certain characters are toyed with.
There’re been lots of fascinating instances of movies playing with music and with the genre of the musical this year — Enchanted with its spoofing, the long-form musical video of Once — but Burton will go down as the filmmaker who brought the horror comedy and all its attendant geek sensibility to a genre that has been busting out in all directions but that one. (My geek reflexes were so engaged that I couldn’t help but play with all kinds of geek puns as a headline for this review: “A Close Shave”? “Shorn of the Dead”?) When we start seeing science fiction musicals, we’ll have Burton to thank.