Blood, guts and gore in this horror-tinged, claret-dipped Burton adaptation of Sondheim’s musical
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), Jayne Wisener (Johanna Barker), Sacha Baron Cohen (Adolfo Pirelli), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy Barker/Beggar Woman), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope), Ed Sanders (Toby Ragg)
Sondheim’s blood-soaked musical about the infamous serial-killing barber, intent on revenge against the judge who transported him to Australia and stole his late wife, took years to make it to screen. His intensely theatrical, intricate musical masterpieces don’t always translate to film – they lack that crowd-pleasing oomph. What with Todd slashing throats with misanthropic glee, aided by besotted neighbour Mrs Lovett baking the bodies into pies, and no wonder Sweeney was a difficult pitch.
However, it’s practically tailor-made for the High Priest of Gothic Oddity, Tim Burton. A lifelong Hammer horror fan, it’s no surprise Burton had loved the musical since first seeing it in 1980. He’s a perfect match for this stuff, and his film is a bleak, heavily desaturated, oppressively grim and strikingly optimism-free descent into a subterranean hell, with almost every scene accompanied by a free-flowing deluge of Shining-style levels of blood.
Sweeney Todd is a design triumph (Oscar-winning for its production design and nominated for its costumes). It’s London is like an Oliver! set run through a fevered nightmare slasher film. Everything is grandiose, filthy and above all cold, oppressive and unwelcoming. Most of the light comes from the reflection of moonlight on the blades of Todd’s razors, and the basement of his building is a gruesome horror show, with a pumping furnace and mangled body parts in a mincer.
The film shocked critics expecting a more traditional Broadway musical translation with the dark glee it embraces the gore. When throats are slashed – which occurs as regularly as clockwork – blood sprays over the actors, camera and virtually everything else. Sweeney’s chair drops his victims head-first into the cellar: each fall is seen in terrible detail, bodies landing with a sickening crunch, twisted out of shape and heads smashed open on the stone floor. There is little black comedy, the film embracing flat-out horror.
It also focuses on the black hate in Sweeney’s heart, his fixation on revenge at any costs and the lack of any trace of humanity within him. While Mrs Lovett longs to turn this “relationship” into something more intimate and loving – she even sings about it in By the Sea to the stony-faced indifference of Sweeney – to Sweeney she is little more than a convenient means to an end. Bravely, no real attempt is made to make us feel real sympathy for this brutal killer – and the visceral brutality of his killings only adds to this.
The film is dominated by its two leads, simplifying the musical down to something leaner, swifter and meaner. This is a dark revenge tragedy doubling as a character study of its two leads’ souls. These places a lot of pressure on Depp and Carter. Sweeney Todd was very much at the apex of a trend in musical film-making where stars were trained to sing, rather than casting skilled singers who can act. Sweeney Todd is an immensely complex musical, with deeply challenging lead parts. Even using the intimacy and immediacy of the camera to bring the scale down (they don’t need to hit the back row), it still must have been intimidating to sing with very little experience.
Depp and Carter however acquit themselves well. Working with a director they both trust implicitly, they give dark, twisted performances of unspoken longings. Depp, in one of his finest and most restrained performances (which says a lot about the irritating abandon of many of his other roles) that stresses Sweeney’s sociopathic coldness. He is a tortured man, turning his unhappiness and self-loathing into a weapon to slice open the world. Carter channels sociopathic eccentricity with a tenderness, vulnerability and desperation for love.
As singers however, they are competent rather than inspired. Depp goes for an earthy, Bowie-esque, Rex Harrison-paced growl that conveys the emotion but simplifies the songs and robs them of some of their impact. Carter’s more lively rendition carries more character, but in both cases you wonder what would have happened if the film had married its cinematic visuals with assured Broadway performers. The best singers by far are Jamie Campbell Bower (whose role as the would-be lover of Sweeney’s long-lost daughter is heavily cut) and Ed Sanders, who is excellent as the orphan taken under Mrs Lovett’s wing (West End-star Laura Michelle Kelly, perversely, barely sings a note).
The focus on Sweeney and Mrs Lovett leaves little room for the other actors. Rickman brings a subtle perversion to Judge Turpin – even though, bless him, he’s not the best singer – and Spall a creepy eccentricity to the Beadle. But this is the Sweeney show, a decision that robs the film of any trace of the more hopeful elements of the original, to zero in on the dark horrors.
The film pulls few punches, but never makes us care about Sweeney. For all the trims, it’s surprisingly poorly-paced (especially considering its short run-time). Such little importance is given to the supporting characters, time feels wasted when we are with them. The cuts also stress how little actual plot there is around Sweeney and Mrs Lovett (once they decide to embark on a life of crime, there is little that happens to sustain the film through its middle act).
The film is a Gothic slasher triumph, but it’s perhaps neither a great musical nor a truly engaging tragedy. A slice more humanity, in between the slashed throats, might have helped a great deal.