Knight at the Movies Archives
Sondheim finds his perfect muse in Tim Burton and the star wattage burns fitfully in Mike Nichols black comedy
It’s only on reflection that director Tim Burton’s insistence on expanding the title of his latest movie from Sweeney Todd to the more
explicit Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street becomes evident. Of course: it immediately explains to the
uninitiated (read: young) that even though the movie’s a musical (gasp!) Johnny Depp’s going to be playing a really nasty, yet
delicious character so calm down already. The emphasis in this long awaited adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical
masterpiece in the hands of Burton, as expected, ups the gore and especially the blood as well, another reason to draw in the
kiddies. In fact, from the opening credits at the start of the movie, the film literally drips with the stuff. It falls from the skies over
a London so dark and foul it might even make old Scrooge pause.
But unlike The Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow, Burton’s most recent goth movies, Sweeney Todd’s story of doomed romance and
revenge is so perfectly suited to Burton’s gloomy yet enticing sensibilities that it cannot fail to land. Welded to Sondheim’s exquisite
score, even in this truncated form, is a perfect meeting of director and material. The movie rests on the performances of Johnny
Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, to be sure, but it’s the intersection of Burton with Sondheim’s doom and gloom score that is the
real triumph; a veritable match made in hell. The result is a (pardon the pun) bloody good time for young and old and one that
Goths and Showtune Queens alike can embrace.
The story follows the former Benjamin Barker now re-dubbed Sweeney Todd (Depp) who has returned to London after escaping a
false imprisonment at the hands of the nefarious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and his evil henchman, the Beadle (Timothy Spall).
Turpin coveted Sweeney’s beautiful wife and to get her had Sweeney imprisoned. The wife, gravely used by the judge, poisoned
herself and now Turpin has Sweeney’s grown up daughter in his clutches, with plans to marry her. With the aid of the amoral Mrs.
Lovett (Bonham Carter) who runs a meat pie establishment above which his barber shop used to stand, Sweeney goes about getting
his horrible revenge. While Sweeney awaits a chance to get at Turpin, he and Mrs. Lovett hatch a dastardly plan: using the gleaming
razors (“My Friends”) which Mrs. Lovett has hidden away, Sweeney will kill a batch of black hearted Londoners who Mrs. Lovett will
then bake in her pies. A reconfigured barber chair which shoots bodies through a trap door down to the cellar ingeniously helps the
A subplot involves Anthony, the young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) who has earlier saved Sweeney from drowning in the sea, and
who has fallen for Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) he has glimpsed through a window at Judge Turpin’s. There’s also
the Italian barber, Signor Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) to contend with but mainly we’re concerned with Todd and Lovett – the evil duo
at the center of the film (who are made up to look like silent film stars or human panda bears) and sing lustfully of their rapacious
desires – briefly, as all of the songs have been trimmed and the chorus numbers jettisoned. To shore up Depp’s pleasant tenor
singing and Bonham Carter’s whispered vocals, Burton has cast lesser trained voices in the other parts and downplayed the score’s
operatic qualities. Mood is all here and the songs (most less than five minutes a piece) move quickly around the fantastic,
cramped, inky dark sets (by Dante Ferretti). The color palette is so dark it’s almost like seeing a movie of charcoal drawings (the
film’s breathtaking cinematography is by Dariusz Wolski)
I’m a huge fan of the stage version but the shortened songs didn’t bother me as atmosphere is so overpowering here. The vocal
deficits of the cast on the other hand, are harder to overlook – both “Pretty Women” and “Not While I’m Around” – two of the score’s
most achingly beautiful songs – are not the expected highlights though they are aided (as is the entire score) by Joanathan Tunick’s
Going with a younger cast also has its advantages – the freshness of Anthony and Johanna is quite believable (they seem like high
school kids) and really ups the sexual tension between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. Bonham Carter’s cleavage almost spills over her
dress into those meat pies and Depp wields his phallic symbol razors like a man possessed.
I’m not sure how mainstream audiences are going to take to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This isn’t exactly
Hairspray, you know. Will the gore and creepy atmosphere and golden goose Johnny Depp be enough for musical phobic crowds?
Will show tune queens forgive Burton for butchering Sondheim’s score (even with Sondheim’s help) in order to keep the running time
down to two hours? No matter how these questions get answered, however, it’s hard to argue that this is yet another enthralling
derring-do between Burton and Depp – perhaps their strongest to date.
Mike Nichols’ latest film, Charlie Wilson’s War (with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) is being sold by the star power of Tom Hanks
and Julia Roberts and the incongruities of the story which the movie loosely reenacts: a playboy Texan Congressman who joined
forces with a mega rich blond bombshell – another Texan – in the early 80s to arm Afghan rebels and defeat Russian forces thus
ending Communism in that war torn country.
One would expect the star wattage of the two leads, aided by thick accents and character eccentricities (not to mention a big ‘ole
bouffant for Roberts) to be incredibly, tantalizingly high but instead it only burns fitfully. Scenes that would have increased your
caring about these two seem to have been cut while the ironies in the story don’t really seem so off the wall considering the effect
Texas conservatives have had on American politics the last seven years. The picture just sort of bumps along in a fairly entertaining
manner, light in tone but not particularly involving. Only a visit to a Darfur like refuge camp and each appearance of Philip Seymour
Hoffman as a scrappy CIA operative (who has a great opening rant and then never lets up) have the effect of drawing you back into
the movie – temporarily.
The Nightmare During Christmas:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street-Charlie Wilson's War
Expanded Edition of 12-19-07 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.