The moment this film was announced, theatre freaks and Goths clenched up in anticipation. Tim Burton! Johnny Depp! Really, probably only Guillermo del Toro could come close to being a second viable choice to helm this project. At least we know they will get how very epic and dark Sweeney Todd should be. My companion and I, Sweeney fans who have each worked on a production, could track every change. We could applaud the necessary and difficult cuts (Parlor Songs) and puzzle over the omissions (the chorus part in God, That’s Good). Fans, a spoiler: there is NO chorus part, and it is indeed distracting. That said, because we know were every neon-red drop of blood was meant to fall, the screenplay choices were not troublesome in terms of following the story. I would love to hear from someone not familiar with the show on this.
But how is it, you press urgently. I confess I had trouble because of certain favorite moments being eliminated – an unfair assessment of the film as its own work, I grant. The sets are gorgeous – grungy, dark, evil, stylized, but still solid. The costumes and makeup (save Johnny’s synthetic white streak, wicking away blood like so much rainwater) are richly layered in desaturated squalor and grime. It is a lifeless, dreary London, through which blood boils like, well, a city on fire. (Yes, omitted).
Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both simply too beautiful and young looking to fully inhabit these roles visually. Depp certainly has the wild-eyed intensity that is needed, and Bonham-Carter has the doe-eyed cleverness and wit. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall as the Beadle? Perfection. Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli – I knew he would nail the quick patter and fey flamboyance, but could he sing it? Yes! My companion had troubles with his overly impeccable accent work (my trouble was with Bonham-Carter’s wispy diction) but he made Pirelli the hilarious rat he needs to be.
Newcomer Jayne Wisener (Johanna) is a china doll of a gal, a slip of a girl who opens her cherubic mouth and gives her “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” solo wings I never knew it had when sung by older voices. Another newcomer, Ed Sanders as Toby, steals the show from the big names by being perfectly earnest and vulnerable and singing his hard songs with real beauty. Finally, as Jonathan, Jamie Campbell Bower seems too young and pretty to be the lovestruck sailor, but his sweet voice helped prop up Sondheim’s difficult score where the amateurs flag a bit. All of these folks, when I saw them listed, seemed far too young, but this film showed me that they were really more age appropriate than the grownups that usually limn their roles on stage.
Oh wait, who am I forgetting? Right, Depp and Bonham-Carter. I confess I am very sad that Depp’s tenor cannot grab you by your crumpet in the same way a full baritone can. The whole score felt like the bass section had been discreetly snuck out of the back door, robbing the instrumentals of much of their oomph. His pitch, his styling, his acting-while-singing is all great, it just felt wan compared to the material. Bonham-Carter’s voice for the most part is soft, reedy, and precisely clipped, not brassy or balls to the wall either. In a duet with Toby, it’s a lovely effect, but in the darkly comic “A Little Priest” (best staging ever!) it lacks gravy. She and Johnny both sang out at one point and I got excited, hoping for more.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it is a musical, but even at its most Broadway, it’s no Oklahoma, It’s dark, dissonant, miserable, and brilliant. Come on, murder, cannibalism, abuse, revenge, depravity, all in song? Burton goes a step further, removing any inorganic group singing and keeping it intimate, close, tiny. At first this drove me bananas. Why do I see a movie of a musical if not to see MORE HOT PIES? But upon spirited reflection with my wise cohort, we found it to be (paradoxically) more centrist despite its extreme themes. Musical-haters don’t have to endure glorious kicklines of strangers (I’m looking at you, Hairspray) and opera lovers can focus on the leads’ close-in performances. Burton also eludes the disease that made his Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory not quite gel.
As an added bonus, if someone sees the movie and then goes to see a stage production, the play will blow their brains open because it won’t be in the shadow of Biggest Production Ever from the silver screen (I’m looking at you, Chicago). Burton’s Sweeney Todd is very different, but it’s a solid movie.
MPAA Rating R-graphic bloody violence
Release date 12/21/07
Time in minutes 117
Director Tim Burton
Studio Dreamworks / Warner Brothers