Every December, one of the major studios brings us a musical - something to lighten the spirits and brighten the holidays. This year, in the proud tradition of Chicago and Dreamgirls, we have Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. With Tim Burton as the director, one has to wonder whether Halloween might have been a better release time. True to its stage nature, Sweeney Todd is characterized by a love of the macabre and a cutting. Under Burton's direction, however, it's strange of course. The movie's lack of energy radiates outward from the low-key songs to the subdued performance by Johnny Depp to the desaturated color employed by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski.
Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is the Jack the Ripper of barbers. Wronged by the vile Judge Turpin , who had Sweeney deported so he could steal his wife, the haircutter returns with visions of slicing more than sideburns and whiskers. He discovers that his wife is dead and his teenage daughter, Johanna, is Turpin's ward. Sweeney makes it a priority to visit his revenge upon Turpin and his assistant, Beadly Bamford . To this end, he employs the aid of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who runs a disused pub under Sweeney's old barber shop. Soon, the haircutter is again open for business but those who enter seem not to emerge. Sweeney has opened a trap door in the bottom of his shop and, when he's done with customers, they are placed into Mrs. Lovett's grinder so they can become the ingredients of her meat pies.
Since this is a musical, the first thing to discuss is, quite naturally, the music. It's far from Stephen Sondheim's best work, but it has nevertheless developed a devoted following over the years. It's tough to develop rousing lyrics about murderers and cannibals. In the movie, it's odd that the instrumental portions of the soundtrack (those that feature the reverberations of an organ) are more effective than the songs. One has to give Johnny Deep credit for doing his own singing, but doesn't have the voice to really pull this off. Even the most heartfelt refrains lack the zest that we have come to expect from big-screen musicals. Sweeney Todd might have worked just as well with the lyrics changed to spoken dialogue - that's how unremarkable the musical numbers are. (Those who know the songs by heart from the stage musical will argue with me vociferously on this point, as one might expect.)
Stylistically, this is all Burton. In fact, one could argue that it's Corpse Bride come to life. This is Jack the Ripper's London - a place of shadows, horror, and the grand guignol. Sweeney looks like Captain Jack crossed with Elsa Lancaster's Bride of Frankenstein, and Depp plays the role pretty much the way he has played every part in his career for Burton. There's a little Edward Scissorhands here, a little Ichabod Crane there, and a dash of Ed Wood thrown in for good measure. In contrast to Depp's somewhat predictable portrayal, Helena Bonham Carter shows gust for her devious, depraved character and Alan Rickman feeds on the evil that never quite bubbles to the surface as Professor Snape. The supporting actors, including unknowns like Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower, are largely forgettable.
I suspect that fans of Sondheim's play will be pleased with Burton's screen interpretation of it. He has remained faithful to the essence of the text, making trims when necessary but keeping the overall skeleton intact. Those who come to the movie with a fresh set of eyes, however, may find it possessing a suitably wicked sense of humor, but perhaps lacking enough to justify the nearly two-hour running length. There are times when Sweeney Todd feels protracted. This is largely due to the absence of any real show-stoppers. Rather than waiting breathlessly for the next song, we view the entire text, both spoken and sung, as a continuum of variably interesting conversation and exposition. While there's plenty in Sweeney Todd to please the eye, there's less here to generate any real sense of enthusiasm. The film's bloodiness is suitably over-the-top but, as with everything else, Burton downplays it to avoid the appearance of campiness. In the end, the real problem with the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is that he's not as much of a murderer as he should be.