Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Tim Burton
viewed: 12/28/07 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

Sweeney Todd, the latest collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and heck let’s throw Helena Bonham Carter in there too, is some pretty serious Goth and gloom, Victorian era, black-sooted London, and rivers upon rivulets of blood.  Oh yeah, and singing!  I think a lot of people have commented on the oddity of the marketing of this film, which has singing and music throughout at least 95% of its running time, in which the promos show noone’s mouth open in tune.

I’ve become increasingly critical of Burton.  He seems to really recoil from working with originary material, drawn especially toward “re-invention” or “re-imagining” or simply “re-making” movies from all kinds of cultural effluvia.  And his basic lack of depth in the areas of emotion.  Surface is everything.  And it’s beautifully designed.  And then there’s Danny Elfman….

All of these criticisms I had in my head going into this film, which I’d read an interesting short critique of in The New Yorker, which seemed to sum up my expectations.  But then, I still wanted to see it.

In the taking of Stephen Sondheim’s musical to the big screen, I had little to say.  I’m not familiar with the musical, and I only had vague knowledge of the origin of the narrative.  Sweeney Todd was a character that arose in Victorian pulp fiction, the penny dreadful, as people like to refer to them.  After taking a class in 19th Century crime fiction, I have been developing quite an appreciation for the genre and the stories of the genre.

It’s high camp in any era.  A barber who slits his clients throats, whisking them headfirst into the basement, where his collaborator grinds their flesh for meat pies to be sold to an unwitting London public.  And singing!

And revenge on the judge who had him shipped off to Australia on false charges, who drove Todd’s wife toward suicide and abducted and raised Todd’s daughter to eventually be his wife.

And singing!

You know, Depp isn’t given much room to act in this film.  His constant scowl is his unchanged heart and his singular emotion throughout.  Bonham Carter gets the larger emotional scape with her doomed love for Todd, her nonplussed villainy, her dreams of love and family, and her genuine duplicity.  And blood.  There’s a lot of blood.  And singing!

The singing isn’t bad, but it’s also not all that good.  I kept wondering what the songs would sound like sung by people who sang more professionally, who knew the material and might bring out of it what was there.  I think that musically, it’s not meant to give you a lot of ringing choruses that are meant to stay in your head, but strange play and counterpoints that work with the ever clever and interesting lyrics.

It’s a musical after all.  Burton-ized.  Dark.  Lurid.  Heaving Victorian bodices.  Big hair.  Bonham Carter and Depp are virtual male/female twins of one another with their giant mops of dark curls.  And Sasha Baron Cohen shows up, a flash of color, in the dark of London.

But you know, I did kind of enjoy it.  Certainly more than I was anticipating.  I’m still trying to figure out why and what and all, but it was not bad, certainly not all bad.  Maybe even good.

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