I’ve been sitting here trying to decide whether Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Oscar material or not, but then I realized it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that Tim Burton, one of the more interesting (if not always completely successful) filmmakers working today, has made one of his best movies in a long time. Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol musical is material that Burton seems born to bring to the screen.
Too often, Burton’s meticulously designed gothic fantasies threaten to bury his sometimes scattershot stories. The weaker ones crumble under the weight, looking beautiful, but unable to stand up for themselves. They’re lovely to look at, but sometimes seem empty inside. In Sweeney Todd however, Burton has found a story not only appropriate to his visual aesthetic, but also weighty enough to keep from being overwhelmed by his style. There’s also a strong emotional undercurrent that gives the movie a surprising gravity and resonance. The feeling is never lost in the production design.
Being a musical, the first question on everyone’s mind will probably be “Can Johnny Depp sing?” I’m not an expert, but I thought he was surprisingly good as the revenge bent Sweeney Todd. He can carry a tune and sell the emotion of a song. More importantly, he can act while he sings. These things matter more to me than range or vocal histrionics. Depp is a good actor. Here he’s got Jack Sparrow’s accent, but it’s a more stripped down, nuanced character and there’s depth of feeling behind it.
Helena Bonham Carter is weaker in the singing department as Mrs. Lovett the meat pie maker, but she makes up for it with her own charm and humor. She’s a natural at the vein of dark humor that runs all through Sweeney Todd. She’s a perfect counterpoint to the more dark and brooding Sweeny. Though I’d heard her part was cut down from that of the original Broadway production, it doesn’t feel like she’s been given short shrift and she’s key to several of the best scenes, particularly some of the duets. She was in all of my favorite bits: The Worst Pies in London, My Friends and By The Sea. By The Sea was especially good, enhanced by a comic shift in production design from the dull gray of London used throughout the rest of the film; a welcome bit of leavening amid some dark and heavy territory.
I should also make special mention of some of the supporting cast. Jamie Campbell Bower as the young sailor who falls in love with Sweeney’s daughter probably has the best voice of the lot. Timothy Spall is suitably loathsome as Beadle Bamford and Sacha Baron Cohen is amusing as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, the preening competitor to Sweeney Todd whose knowledge of the barber’s past might get him into trouble.
Finally, it’s nice to see the great and underused Alan Rickman unshackled from the ball and chain of the Harry Potter series. He’s given a bit more to do here than scowl and he makes the most of it.
About the blood. There are fountains of it and this might turn some people off. Personally, I thought it was so exaggerated and stylized that it wasn’t disturbing. Though I’m not squeamish, I don’t want to underplay what a violent story it is. If you were born under a rock and aren’t familiar with it: Sweeney Todd takes revenge for past wrongs by slitting numerous throats. His companion Mrs. Lovett bakes the victims into very popular meat pies.
The first couple of killings were sudden and surprising, but the blood was so red/orange, especially in contrast to the washed out, almost monochromatic cinematography that it wasn’t almost cartoonish rather than grisly or disgusting. It seemed tied to an emotional component somehow and I didn’t fint it off-putting at all. Your results may vary depending on your stomach for this sort of thing.
The blood I think may be the line of demarcation for Oscar voters and their overall acceptance or rejection of Sweeney Todd will hinge upon their reaction to it. The original Broadway production is nearly 30 years old so the dark and violent material shouldn’t come as a surprise to most voters, but I wonder if the up close and personal magnifier of the big screen might not make it all a little too much. Either way, I expect Johnny Depp will be nominated. Though he’s not even in the same league as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (when P.T. Anderson named his film, he surely had no idea he’d be up against Sweeney Todd), if the Academy warms up to Sweeney, it might be enough to give him the edge. Voters who liked Depp in the Pirates movies (who didn’t?), but didn’t vote for him because it was silly Jerry Bruckheimer crap, might find enough reason to reward him here.
As for a general audience, I can’t say. Depp and Burton fans I think will be pleased. Fans of the original musical should be happy. As for everyone else, I don’t know. I can only recommend you give it a shot.