Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman
Directed by Tim Burton
If you love musical theater — and I’ve yet to meet anyone who is ambivalent on the subject — you can be a bit, well, unreasonable when it comes to interpretations of beloved shows.
“Richard Gere as Billy Flynn in Chicago?” came one collective gasp. “New songs added to Dreamgirls?” went another.
It was just the movies doing what they do — casting stars, tweaking for awards-bait — but it wasn’t that simple. Like casting an actual woman as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, some choices would be too foolish to dismiss as “artistic license.”
Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street brings with it the operatic grandeur of a through-sung story. Or at least it would, if the film version had been able to take that approach.
Director Tim Burton’s visually dazzling interpretation falls short of its potential largely thanks to one not-insignificant choice: He cast two leads who can barely carry a tune in a bag.
Problem the first: Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd.
In the gray, grim prologue, Sweeney is returning to London on a ship with young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower). He relates the story of how a young barber named Benjamin Barker was sent to prison for 15 years by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), so Turpin could have Barker’s wife. With his wild sweep of white-shocked hair and sunken eyes — Jack Sparrow’s eye makeup looks almost modest by comparison — Depp embodies the grim vengeance of Barker-turned-Todd.
But when he opens his mouth to sing, he gives away his amateur status. Like many inexperienced singers trying to pull off complicated songs, he growls most of his lyrics, blunting the force of Sondheim’s dark arias.
He is, however, a virtual Pavarotti compared to problem the second: Helena Bonham Carter.
Burton’s real-life partner Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, the proprietor of a meat-pie shop housed below Sweeney’s old apartments. As the two fall into an odd — and fairly gruesome — partnership, Carter delivers a fine physical performance. But anyone who can sit through her trilling of “The Worst Pies in London” without wincing simply doesn’t grasp the insinuating splendor of Sondheim’s music. Credited screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) becomes necessary to fill in the gaps — and minimize the damage — where ordinarily there would be someone in full voice.
When an actual singer is on the screen, you can hear the difference.
As Anthony becomes enamored of Turpin’s ward — Sweeney’s now-teenaged daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) — Bower croons the magnificent love ballad that shares her name. Wisener shows off her coloratura chops on “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.” Even some of the songs given to Depp and Carter are too entertaining to be ruined utterly, like the deft black humor of “A Little Priest.”
Sondheim reaches for the heights of classic opera here, in the dark thematic material, broad comic relief and the ambitious, often overlapping songs. But for most of the film’s running time, the songs demonstrate as much throat pain as that caused by Sweeney’s razors.
Be ready for plenty of that razor action, because Sweeney Todd fairly swims in pools of arterial spray. It’s here that Burton really makes the material his own in a positive way, with a parade of death gurgles and snapping necks as the tortured Sweeney turns his customers into fodder for Mrs. Lovett’s pies.
Burton leeches the color from his Victorian London, making the bursts of almost fluorescent red that much more shocking. Burton has always been a master of nightmare-scapes, and he oversees a production design that retains just the slightest hint of stagecraft.
That’s the real tragedy of Sweeney Todd: For every baffling choice Burton makes, he makes two or three spectacular ones. His casting of Sacha Baron Cohen as Sweeney’s rival barber Signor Pirelli is inspired. Cohen’s scenes are among the film’s hilarious high points. And the staging of Mrs. Lovett’s romantic fantasy “By the Sea” hits perfect visual notes while Depp remains deadpan.
But Burton doesn’t seem to really respect his source material as opera, to the extent that he eliminates the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” numbers that provide the story’s moral compass.
Sporadic brilliance gives way to an abrupt, unsatisfying ending. And perhaps because Burton has learned his lesson too late, that ending involves a haunting image, swelling music — and a lot of notably closed mouths.