Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A Film by Tim Burton
Adapted by John Logan from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Broadway Musical
The Movies: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Ned Depew The new film from Tim Burton is an adaptation - with a screenplay by John Logan - of Stephen Sondheim's and Hugh Wheeler's successful Broadway musical of the same title. I never saw the Broadway version, as I could never quite wrap my mind around the concept that the Grand Guignol story of a demented serial killer who cuts his victims' throats and whose partner-in-crime makes the cadavers into meat pies could be turned into anything that I might consider "entertainment".
To the extent that the film version is faithful to the stage show I'd have to say I was right. Sondheim, of course, can be counted on for some evocative and intelligent music as well as lyrics that range from the droll to the touching. Burton is a master of visual style. Lead actors Johnny Depp ,as Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham-Carter as his cannibalistic paramour Mrs. Lovett and Alan Rickman as the execrable Judge Turpin do a fine job - not only with the acting, for which they are already well known - but in putting across the songs as well. But Burton's over-the-top approach to the grisly gore of the film makes it very difficult to watch.
Burton has established himself as a master of the macabre. In such efforts as Edward Scissorhands (in which Depp also starred) and his animated The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride (which Depp and Bonham-Cater also voiced) he has brought "dark" worlds to life, and given them a sort of skewed charm and pathos. But in other attempts - including his Batman Returns and the current film - his fascination with the twisted and the horrible has undercut otherwise excellent film-making.
It is difficult to imagine anyone going to this film for "fun." And if not for fun - then for what purpose? The film has little to say about any of the serious subjects it addresses - like social inequity, injustice, man's inhumanity to man, the lust for revenge, and mental instability - to name just a few - that hasn't been expressed more fluently, more clearly and more thoughtfully (without the gruesomely off-putting special-effects) in many other films. Burton is someone who enjoys walking the narrow edge between the entertaining and the offensive, but he doesn't always manage to keep his balance.
The Sondheim/Wheeler version of the story was based on a 1973 play by British playwright Christopher Bond, which was in turn based on a tradition that seems to have originated in the "penny-dreadful" version of pulp-fiction popular in England in the mid-19th Century. Although various authors and publishers have claimed a connection to real events, careful research has been unable to trace any specific real-world precedent, although there is some record of events that might have served as"inspiration."
The musical was a critical and popular success on Broadway and in London, and has been revived several times. Sondheim characterized his version as "a musical thriller" and due to the scarcity of its non-sung dialogue, "virtually an opera." It seems likely that the Sondheim's unconventional but charming music was at the heart of its appeal.
It is possible to imagine that the more grotesque and grisly aspects of the story would be easier to accept at the distance live theater imposes between the stage and the audience. One of the challenges that film faces - and one of its greatest strengths - is that it brings the physical reality of events and characters much closer to the audience than live theater ever can. Its ability to present a (literally) larger-than-life view is often an asset. It is used, for instance, to make the visceral shocks of horror films even more intense.
But Sweeney Todd is not exactly a horror film, and so the effects, which seem lifted directly from the "slasher" genre, create something that distracts from the "musical" without grounding the film anywhere else. The frisson of Grand Guignol, which seems to be the rather campy intent of the musical theater version of the story is badly served by the excessively realistic and excessively exaggerated (by the scale of film viewed on a 40' screen) presentation.
The basic story (as modified from the pulp original by Bond) is that of a wronged innocent whose life is ruined and love destroyed by an amoral hypocrite who uses his power to serve his own selfish purposes. The wronged man returns transformed and seeks revenge against those who injured him. This is a not-unfamiliar plot - from such stories as The Count of Monte Christo. Whereas in the Dumas story we root for the Count, Sweeny Todd loses control of his righteous rage and becomes a homicidal maniac, indiscriminately (and horribly) slaughtering the innocent on his way to his goal. It's impossible to sympathize with a character who is so almost entirely devoid of feeling for his fellow beings.
The Sweeney Todd depicted here, despite the back-story (first introduced in the Bond play) that tries to explain his attitude, is completely opaque in his pathology. He is, quite literally, a "monster," and as such, outside of engaging human experience, no more interesting than "Leatherface," "Jason" or any of the other one-dimensional villains from the "slasher" canon.
It seems that within the framework of Sondheim's songs, the original musical was looking for a point of entry to Todd's distorted world. a way to imagine him the victim of his history and career as well as its author. There may be some sad philosophical insight there about the price we all pay for giving in to our rage, however provoked and justified we may feel. If there is, Burton's blood-happy, relentlessly-gloomy staging and Logan's screenplay obscure it completely.
But if you don't mind closing your eyes during the more revolting parts of the film - when characters spew fountains of blood, their brains splatter on the floor of the basement or their severed body-parts are strewn about - what remains of the film shows some of what may have been appealing on stage. The songs are artful and melodic. A duet in which Todd and Lovett fantasize about their proposed meat-pie bakery in terms of its menu is very funny. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd is a very dark update of the W.S. Gilbert patter song, with Sondheim's modernist musical styling and some bitingly satirical lyrics.
And of course Burton's composition of the film, from sound design to editing to sets and costumes to the elaborate and detailed backgrounds is beautifully realized. With a team of talented collaborators, he has put together a sort of fantasy-period-piece that creates a fully believable world. The camera work is well-planned and executed, with many nods to the disorienting, fabulist cinema of predecessors from Murnau and Lang to Fellini. Sondheim's music is central to the film. Given the excesses mentioned above, one could almost wish that Burton had been willing to film it more as the "opera" Sondheim imagined and less as a"movie," with the possibility for an emphasis on special effects and intense imagery that allows.
And perhaps that's the problem here: instead of a harmony between the story, the score and the staging, there's a sort of competition, with Burton seeking to rachet-up the already more than sufficient "dark" aspects of the original to the ultimate detriment of the finished product. Burton's actors labor hard and effectively to try to make something out of all this. But the writing and staging have an unrelenting and monotonous quality that makes their job impossible.
The heart of storytelling is movement, transformation. emotional growth. Characters learn something, they come to some realization (sometimes tragically too late) and they change - at least in understanding. In this film (as in the bleak, "realist" novels of Emile Zola) the three main characters simply sink further and further into their own depravity. In Zola that my have been justified - not as entertainment, certainly, but as awakening the conscience and sympathy of his readers to the plight of their fellow-humans. But in the early 21st Century any such intent would be naive and redundant, given the content of the nightly news.
The sum of all this analysis is that what Burton has created here is much less than the sum of its parts. In spite of strong performances, excellent music and first-quality production values, Sweeney Todd doesn't inspire, it doesn't uplift, and it doesn't entertain. It's a dark, hopeless vision that can't even be called tragic, since none of the characters can be said to have any hint of the nobility that is necessary to the Tragic Hero. Burton has made a career of finding the poignant charm in gallows humor, but that charm is glaringly absent here, with the result that Sweeney Todd is painfully unpleasant.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.