Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Like many Americans (guys), I don’t particularly like musicals. I’ll take witty, intelligent dialogue over singing and dancing any day.
“Sweeney Todd” was a must-see for me, though, because of who made it. Leading man Johnny Depp and filmmaker Tim Burton are perhaps the most exciting actor/director duo since De Niro and Scorsese. Their last collaboration – the 2006 blockbuster “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” – is a heartwarming gem. It was the best family movie since “Shrek.”
By comparison, “Sweeney Todd” is a letdown. It has all of the macabre misery that you’d expect from a Tim Burton film, but little of the pathos, humor, and imagination.
Johnny Depp stars as Sweeney Todd, a London barber who was a whiz with a razor blade before he was wrongly imprisoned for 15 years. The story begins with Sweeney returning to take bloody revenge on the men who framed him.
Helena Bonham Carter is Mrs. Lovett, a lonely lady who becomes his willing accomplice. She comes up with the profitable idea of baking the corpses of Sweeney’s slain victims into meat pies.
Believe it or not, “Sweeney Todd” is even darker than it sounds. There are buckets of blood, and every murder feels real and unpleasant. I actually enjoy violent movies, and this one made me cringe.
I admire how uncompromising the picture is. The violence is sometimes shocking and even a little scary at times.
But ultimately “Sweeney Todd” is a failure. Some substance was lost in the translation from sprawling theater production to 90 minute film.
A musical-fanatic friend of mine tells me that the characters of Sweeney Todd’s daughter Joanna and the earnest young sailor who loves her are more fully fleshed out on the stage. That makes sense, because their side-plot in the movie mysteriously fizzles out without a resolution. It made me wonder why they were there to begin with.
I certainly give Johnny Depp credit for taking a chance and singing his own part, but this is not one of his better performances. His voice is fine, but Depp doesn’t bring any of his usual inventive spark to the project.
What makes Depp wonderful is that he usually comes up with an eccentric twist to make the characters he plays funnier and more interesting. Disappointingly, he plays Sweeney Todd straight. It’s a one note performance of brooding, self-destructive obsession. I expected more from him.
That leaves Sweeney’s pie-making partner Mrs. Lovett as the only main character who has an ounce of humanity. As good girlfriends tend to do, Mrs. Lovett loves her man blindly and never acknowledges how irrevocably evil he has become. It’s funny and sad to see her fantasize about an impossible future where she and Sweeney are living together as a normal, happy couple.
You know you’re watching a dark movie when Helena Bonham Carter is the most positive, sympathetic character!
“Sweeney Todd” has plenty of blood and music, but little humor or sophistication. It’s for musical fans only.