Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton | WRITERS: John Logan (screenplay); Hugh Wheeler (musical book); Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) | CAST: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener, Ed Sanders | USA/UK
I should probably come clean at the outset and state that I’m not particularly fond of Stephen Sondheim’s musical to begin with, but I was not quite prepared for Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, as lifeless, claustrophic, confused, and badly sung a movie musical as I’ve seen. Tim Burton has essentially jettisoned the Brecht meets Grand Guignol stance of the stage musical in favor of his own Grand Guignol puppet theater, but a puppet theater so heavy with CGI that there’s no depth, no subtext: all is surface. Instead of a ferocious satire on capitalism (one possible reading of the play), Burton gives us, once again, his picturesque nightmare fantasy vision — here of Victorian London’s underbelly — but his pivoting, swooping camera, the frankly nonrealistic sets, and the unlifelike flatness of the CGI-rendered surroundings made everything feel cartoonish, unreal, and curiously sterile. Even the absurdly huge cockroaches endlessly skittering around in Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop were, if not cute, conspicuously not loathsome. This is a quaint nightmare. The violence and gore, too, are rendered a bit too carefully, too precisely, too explicitly, with the perverse result that the throat cuttings and stabbings were neat and shiny, emotionless, affectless: I never felt a sickening twinge when the blade met the throat, never started when a body crashed to the stone floor one story below.
Unfortunately, surface is all for the actors, too. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter wear the chalk white stage makeup with darkly shadowed eyes that usually signify a corpse or revenant; indeed, Bonham Carter strikingly resembles Theda Bara, the original movie Vamp, and the vampire “daughters” in the 1931 Dracula, but with a frizzled tangle of unbrushed hair on her head, while Johnny Depp’s already androgynous looks are emphasized by the makeup and, particularly, by the Bride of Frankenstein’s warning white stripe through his flowing locks*. Sweeney Todd is not a three-dimensional character by any stretch of the imagination, but Depp’s performance is too closed-in on itself, too one-dimensional to stand out against the world in which the character finds himself — he could very well have been a CGI artifact himself, a marionette — but what Depp does do, he does rather well. Bonham Carter, though, was miscast as Mrs. Lovett and she doesn’t have the chops to follow Depp’s lead; she never manages to convince us that she’s anything but what she is: a heavily made up actress playing a one-dimensional type and not doing a very good job of it. The supporting actors are also playing types, but they manage to acquit themselves well for the most part, with Alan Rickman as the villainous object of Sweeney Todd’s vengeance and Timothy Spall as his sycophantic henchman standing out, and Ed Sanders as a rough and tumble Cockney boy turning in the most technically accomplished theatrical performance in the film.
Oh, yes, it’s a musical. Right. Alan Rickman has just enough voice to manage his part musically, but he’s a true singing actor who knows how to color his voice, modulate his tone, inflect with meaning and purpose. And Ed Sanders comes across like an old hand at musicals; I kept thinking that here I was seeing a boy who should be off performing the Artful Dodger in a major revival of Oliver! at the National in London or somewhere equally prestigious. Helena Bonham Carter has a small, hesitant voice of no real distinction, range, or color, and although she sings mostly in tune and at tempo she isn’t able to do much: there’s no “face” to her singing, no personality, no individual there, she didn’t shape the songs as if she was telling a story, creating a character, moving the plot along. God only knows what Johnny Depp thought he was doing, but he has neither the voice nor the native charisma to pull off the kind of louche pop/rock star crooning and mannerisms he attempts here. I hear a little Bryan Ferry, a little David Bowie, and behind it all maybe a little Anthony Newley in his sound and especially his approach, and the songs appear to have been thought of as separable pop singles instead of flowing naturally out of the musical underpinings of the scenes they’re in. This just wasn’t musical theater singing. The less said about Jayne Wisener’s painfully inadequate go at “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” the better; suffice it to say that I wished the song had been cut from the score.
And now I’m wondering why I think the movie is only pretty bad instead of really bad. Or terrible. I don’t know. It’s a completely realized vision, I suppose, even though it serves no purpose outside itself. But hell, I’m through thinking about the film so I’ll leave it at that.
*Or was Johnny Depp’s hairdo supposed to make us think of Cruella De Vil? Sergei Diaghilev? Susan Sontag?