Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
John Logan (Musical: Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler; Play: Christopher Bond)
Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener, Ed Sanders
R (For graphic bloody violence)
Twisted film director Tim Burton has decided to tackle the musical genre with his adaptation of the legendary stage production Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Based on the Christopher Bond stage play, famed composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turned the story of a barber imprisoned by a cruel judge hoping to gain access to his beautiful wife into one of Broadway’s most important and, some say best, musicals.
The story takes place just after a man calling himself Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is rescued by a starry-eyed sailor named Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower). The opening number gives one hope that the musical may indeed live up to the promise of the stage musical. “No Place Like London” pits optimist against pessimist, Todd describing it as a “hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it.” And he’s not far from the truth, but you wouldn’t exactly understand that from Burton’s decision to make the city dirty, but drenched in faulty fantasy.
It’s this sweeping, computer-generated tracking shots through London that seem to ignore a turn-of-the-century city strangled by poverty, that suggests the film may avoid the realism to which the stage musical was grounded. And from that point, including the introduction of the lowly Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the film spirals out of control to a falsely romantic finale.
Depp has turned in some delightful performances in the past, but Sweeney Todd does not rank among them. He spends 100 of the film’s 116 minutes brooding and scowling. His vocal abilities are weak and feeble when paired with the bombastic orchestrations of the score. Also swallowed up by the music is Bonham Carter who gives her role a bit more humanity, but ultimately disappoints for lack of an ability to play more than Burton’s traditional loosely empowered heroin.
They both display tiny, soft voices that compare poorly with those created by Len Cariou and George Hearn (the original Todd and his first replacement) and Angela Lansbury who delivers the perfect performance, vocally and actorly, as Mrs. Lovett. It’s not entirely fair to compare the two productions as film requires less vocal stamina to project than does stage, but when you have a source that is the embodiment of narrative, musical and dramatic perfection, you can’t avoid the comparison.
For vocals, the leads should be gravelly, worn, aged. Their characters have been through much and whether the physical performance is there, when the voice does not fit the character, it becomes distracting and ultimately destructive. I’ll certainly praise Alan Rickman, who plays the Judge Turpin who sent Benjamin Barker (now Sweeney Todd) to the Australian Penal Colony on trumped up charges. He allows his coarse, deep voice to blend with his iconic temperament to create one of the few believable performances in the film.
The best vocal performance in the film is presented by Ed Sanders who plays Toby, the orphan ward of Todd rival Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). When he sings “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You”, you feel a great deal of compassion for him after his years of being tossed around and how he innocently believes Mrs. Lovett actually cares for him. His performance isn’t necessarily that great while singing, but he’s one of the few refreshing aspects of the film.
One of the most infuriating aspects is that many of the more wonderful parts of the stage production that were either truncated or entirely eliminated from the film version. John Logan can be partly credited with the failure. His work on films like Star Trek: Nemesis, The Last Samurai and The Time Machine are among the worst screenplays of this decade. About half the songs were eliminated, so too was all of the bawdy humor that made the original so much more fun.
Burton has long been an admirer of the morose, witness his thoroughly joyless film The Corpse Bride. He focuses on the outlandish nature of a barber slaying his victims with his razor and ignores the more humanistic touches of the source material. We don’t care about what happens to most of the characters. They’ve been painted into one-dimensional corners and when they finally get what’s coming to them, you can’t help but shrug and wonder what happened to everyone else. Three very important characters (at least Burton plays them up to be early in the film) get absolutely no resolution, which makes you wonder why was there so much focus on them when they were largely ancillary to the plot?
Sweeney Todd is the one of the worst stage-to-screen adaptations I have ever seen. Rent may have had relevance problems and The Phantom of the Opera may have been saddled with dull staging and plodding direction, but both were faithful to the source. Burton not only ejected some of the finest, more reality-based aspects of the production, but he injected his own brand of warped fantasia that only highlights his irrelevance in the realm of quality, introspective cinema.
January 30, 2008