“These are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett, and desperate measures are called for.” – Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp)
Think of the pantheon of musicals, and pick the one that Tim Burton is most likely to feel at home directing. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street probably wins (although we can all agree a Burton-esque Bat Boy would be second in that list).
And when Burton tackles Broadway, he brings his friends along. Johnny Depp stars as the titular homicidal barber, whose relationship with old friend Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) becomes a business partnership. The Piemaker and the Barber begin killing customers to turn into pastry filling, all while Sweeney searches for revenge against Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the man who had him arrested so he could woo his wife. But Turpin’s days of devil-dealing aren’t over as he now covets Sweeney and Lucy’s daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), whom he has adopted. A young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) might get in the way of his plans to wed his ward, however.
Talk about not exactly lavish musical material. Stephen Sondheim’s horror-musical doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to depravity, including everything from throat slitting and cannibalism to rape and borderline incest. Of course Burton would want to take on the project, and what better director to do the dirty job?
Unfortunately, Burton gets in his own way in a lot of the film’s storytelling. The original is a fairly operatic show, much along the lines of Les Miserables. This doesn’t make it very conducive to the type of storytelling Burton is known for — musical but also heavily script- and visual-based — although viewers have to give the Commander of Creepiness credit for trying. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is its color, with the dingy streets of industrial London tinged a permanent gray while the blood spraying from Sweeney’s victims is almost orange in contrast. It’s an artful move that makes other parts of the film, such as Sweeney’s memories of his wife and Mrs. Lovett’s daydreams — pop out in technicolor.
But the stylized filming gets in the way of the story in many ways, distracting viewers from an already attention-thirsty story. The actors aren’t entirely at fault — Depp certainly holds his own and Carter proves her abilities as a wackadoodle with talent — but other bits of the filmmaking, such as the reliance on shock-and-awe tactics without a higher purpose, distract from the talent being shown on screen. Some of the best parts of the film are the simplest, such as rival barber Pirelli’s appearance in the town square. That’s mostly to do with Sacha Baron Cohen’s operatic approach to the over-the-top character, but it’s also because Burton sits back and lets the music carry the story, not his direction or reliance on overwhelming effects.
Sweeney Todd is a show built on gross-out murder but with a far more solid mystery and misery underneath it. Unfortunately, this gets lost in Burton’s film adaptation because of the emphasis on the visual rather than the cerebral. Blood is certainly thicker than water in this picture — in fact, it’s so thick, that it obscures the best aspects of the original musical.