Dark, dirty, gothic London streets; tragic, bitter loss and revenge; a sliver of hope with the chance for redemption; strong male and female leads; high theatrical drama and spontaneous bursts of singing?! That’s right, welcome to the musical of the year! But don’t be put off; this is probably one of a select few musicals that could be stomached by even those who have an active dislike of the genre. Smart, deranged and compelling, Tim Burton’s adaptation of Broadway hit Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Sweeney) is a masterwork.
Does the above description bring to mind anything else? Say, most of Tim Burton’s film catalogue? Little wonder the master of gothic cinema leapt at the chance to direct this macabre musical when director Sam Mendes left it to pursue his recent film Jarhead. It turns out that Burton had expressed interest in adapting the 1979 Tony Award winning theatre piece to Stephen Sondheim (writer of the music and lyrics from the original stage show) as early as the 1980s.
A morose morality play Sweeny focuses on revenge and the bitter cycle it perpetuates. London Barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is falsely charged by the crooked and powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and finds himself sentenced to transportation for life to Australia. The judge has his way with Barker’s wife then discards her, taking the couple’s baby daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) as his ward, raising her as his own beautiful caged animal. Escaping into the sea 15 years later the now embittered Barker is rescued by some sea going vessel and befriended by a young sailor, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), whose fate intertwines with Barker’s alter ego – the malevolent entity that is Sweeney Todd. Upon arriving back in London Todd goes back to his old house and begins a grisly partnership with impoverished neighbour and pie-maker Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter). Lovett dreams of their blossoming relationship but in her heart can see that Todd is a man possessed. Though offered an opportunity to redirect and transform his anger Todd cannot – or will not – take it; his inability to let go of this all consuming rage sees him metaphorically apply the blade to his own throat and cause the very last drops of his humanity to drip lifelessly to the floor.
Sweeney addresses the issue of justice – filtered through the lens of social class. Barker’s fate is sealed because he does not possess the social standing which would make him immune from such unjust indictment. Judge Turpin has all the power. He wants Barker’s wife so he manipulates the judicial system to take her from him; with little thought to the implications for the man himself. Barker is powerless and, later, in enacting vengeance he, and Mrs Lovett, claim back some measure of power – albeit by violent and despicable means. This social statement is given explicit expression in Todd’s and Lovett’s discussion – in part, justifying their decision to turn Todd’s vengeful energies to commercial ends – about how it is time for those at the top to ‘give back’ to those at the bottom. The London setting Burton presents us with has something of a Dickensian feel, replete with beaten down orphan children working for cruel masters and institutional violence and power wielded against the poor. The idea that the cycle of poverty and hate is difficult to break is given voice by Johanna near the end of the film when she proclaims something akin to ‘freedom being a myth’ – not surprising when she has spent almost her entire life as a possessed object only to be rescued by the wide-eyed young Anthony who croons throughout the film “I’ll steal you Johanna” as if she were a piece of fine jewellery.
As a story Sweeney is classic Burton. In fact it is hard to think of another director taking on this musical project. All of his trademark elements are here, with just a smidge more violence than usual. Ok, maybe a whole lot more violence than usual, but it is accomplished in such a theatrical way, and is made to blend in with the very fabric of the film, that it is not as gruesome to watch as you might expect (though certainly not material for sensitive viewers). It is almost as if this film doesn’t have Burton’s stamp – though it undeniably does – because the source material fits his now well known visual aesthetic so well: the closed in buildings, the abundance of night-time scenes, and the incredibly pale features of the characters against dark wardrobe and props. Burton gives us a few small reprieves from the darkness where we see the daylight (eg: in a flashback scene and in a daydream sequence) but here the colours are all completely bled out and the characters made to look almost ridiculous showing how unsuited they have become to the world of light. Sweeney is as visually assured as any other Burton picture but perhaps a little colder in overall tone.
People might mutter about Burton’s reuse of long-time collaborator and friend Johnny Depp as the eponymous lead and also of his partner Helena Bonham-Carter in the female lead role of Mrs Lovett the pie-maker. But it is as though both of these actors’ careers have been working toward these roles. Sweeney could be Edward (Scissorhands) with 17 years of bitter experience of an unjust world behind him. In fact there is one shot where Depp is framed in front of the large window set into the angled roof of the building with the moon shining in on him. He has just been reunited with his silver barber’s blades after a 15 year stint of imprisonment and is crooning to them like they are his lost children. In the final shot he extends his arm out straight holding one blade open from his extended hand and proclaims that he is once again complete. As Edward was a creature with blades for hands that stopped him from being able to connect with people because they would get hurt, the older embittered Todd now welcomes people to his blades to wreak his vengeance upon this same unjust world that has dealt him a cruel hand. Likewise Bonham-Carter appears to be reprising the feel of her character Marla from David Fincher’s 1999 dark classic Fight Club. With the same kind of wild sensuality Bonham-Carter easily matches Depp in creating one of the most dysfunctional onscreen couples. You could say that together they have put flesh and anger into their previous pairing in Burton’s 2005 animated gothic tale Corpse Bride. The point being that these principal three seem made for this film – and the result is something magical, if disturbing, to behold.
Timothy Spall (Peter ‘Wormtail’ Pettigrew in the Harry Potter franchise) shines as Judge Turpin’s obsequious and malicious henchman Beadle Bamford whilst Alan Rickman seems a mite underused in the kind of ‘bad guy’ role he inhabits as well as you would expect him to. These two bring to mind a slightly darker outing of their Snape and Wormtail characters from the Harry Potter franchise. Comic relief is provided in the form of Sacha Barron Cohen (Borat/Ali G) as flamboyant Italian barber-***-amateur-apothecary Signor Adolfo Pirelli, sporting a silky blue outfit reminiscent of a winter Borat one-piece.
The beguiling music and songs in the film were adapted by Mike Higham with the input of the original musical composition/arrangement team of Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Tunick. The cast are uniformly commendable in their performances; some may sing more sweetly but that is because their characters require that they do. They manage to avoid the whole ‘look at me, what great/average job I’ve done’ syndrome, which can occur in musical cinema (see Moulin Rouge). There are duets aplenty and a complex interweaving of interesting counterpoint and dissonance to perfectly complement the bleak visual matter. In fact, the filmmakers purposefully choose to go lighter on dialogue than might usually be the case letting the songs, facial expression, and body movement convey a depth of meaning. Depp in particular expresses much with his eyes and his obsessive, preoccupied interaction with the other characters. So well has Burton integrated all the requisite parts of the production that it doesn’t feel like there are random bursts of song at all – as is often the case with musicals – instead the songs seem a natural part of the fabric of Sweeney and don’t unnecessarily stick out from the rest of the film.
Burton’s metaphors may occasionally get a little heavy handed. Eg: the ‘caged bird / caged girl’ scenario which is at once spelt out with physical and lyrical cues as well as in some dialogue. It can be nice to credit the audience and give them space to discover ideas without pulling them along on a tight leash. But other than this Sweeney is a more than worthy adaptation of great musical based on a disturbing urban legend.
So there it is: a musical that’s as gripping as any full throttle action flick; gothic fiction that has an undercurrent of dry humour. That Tim Burton owns this film through and through is undisputable. That this film will own its audience…I think it will, but you should decide for yourself.
NOTE: Viewer discretion is advised. If you find violence and bloodshed a bit overwhelming then this is not the film for you.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell.
Duration: 116 mins.
Genre: Crime, Musical, Thriller.
Actors: Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter.
Director: Tim Burton.
Release Date: 24-01-2008.