The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Sweeney Todd (2007)

I think I have to call Tim Burton’s latest film both a triumph and a glorious disappointment. Love me some Sweeny Todd. The story of a 19th Century barber named Benjamen Barker, arrested on false charges and sent to an Australian prison colony by a lecherous judge…a barber who returns to wreck bloody vengeance…is one of the jewels of American musical theater. I saw it performed by Angela Lansbury and George Hearn twenty years ago, and more recently saw it on Broadway in a de-constructionist staging that was so psychologically devastating that it haunted me for weeks.

The Johnny Depp version just wasn’t haunting. Oh, the story is there, and most of the songs, but it felt to me that Burton made some errors that are affecting his box office. One, the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, the choral piece that intros and xtros the action, is missing. Without it, the events cannot be placed in context. It is harder to see the morality tale hidden within the Grand Guinol: “to seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it, though seldom as well as Sweeny…”

Angela Lansbury used to say that she performed the entire play just to be able to slam the door at the end. There was, in her final moments onstage, a sense of the longing of the insane Mrs. Lovett for the equally mad Sweeney, a desire to reach out across the damage and find an impossible happiness. That completion is also missing. A director’s choice, but a less than optimal one.

The movie is also missing some of the play’s humor, and that is no good at all. A piece this dark NEEDS the perspective only humor can provide, and without the “God That’s Good!” refrain as Mrs. Lovett serves meat pies to her suddenly burgeoning business, there is a lack of sense of community, the collaboration of the neighborhood, and the city itself, in the ghastly events.

And lastly, the blood. Too much of it, and too in your face. We’re drawn too deeply into Sweeney’s Madness, and this is the only place where Johnny Depp’s lack of formal voice training hurts. Without the lower registers, on an emotional level we are floating along, just above the actual emotional roots that help us to connect to the horror as effectively as we might. The occasional bursts of realistic violence make us cringe rather than laugh uncomfortably. I have zero problem with onscreen violence, done right. I don’t think Burton made the most of this opportunity.

That said, the movie is performed beautifully, sung adequately (more than adequately in many cases—really, the singing is fine), photographed with something approaching genius, and cast…well, in some ways its hard to imagine it being done better.

It’s wonderful, but it just isn’t magical. It just isn’t classic, and it could have been. I give it a “B” with a certain pain…I really wanted to give “Sweeney Todd” an “A”. And I can’t.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment with the exception of the humor. It was there just not enough of it. When Mrs Lovett is trying to help Sweeney see how to get rid of the bodies and it finally pops into his skull, I almost spurt soda out of my nose. The blood was a little over the top and we could have done without the visual of dead bodies' falling to their temporary resting place on the way to the grinder. Other than that, this is not Oscar material for best actor or best actress but Logan deserves an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. I wouldn't change a thing. Except maybe Helena Bonham Carter's voice. I missed it a few times.

Anonymous said...

"Sweeney Todd" has always been one of my very favorite musicals. I was afraid of the film adaptation, but when I heard Sondheim had approved the screenplay, I knew it would be OK, despite my misgivings about Johnny Depp.

The music was fabulous. I thought having Toby played by a little boy instead of adolescent or adult was an extremely clever decision by Tim Burton.

Helena Bonham Carter's voice was just barely adequate.

I thought I'd miss "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" too, but I counted the melody at least eight times during the film itself, so it was OK without it.