I never saw Sweeney Todd on stage, because I never see anything on stage, because I hate the stage. Theater makes me ill, always has. All those actors, I mean, right in the same room with you, acting at you, projecting their trained voices, sweating through their stupid costumes—it’s horrible. Films were invented to put an end to all that.
But theatricality in film can be interesting, and the director of this film, Tim Burton, is Mr. Filmic Theatricality. Sweeney Todd is his meat, a musical with a lot of blood and violence and humor, a promising combination that doesn’t come along every day. In adapting it, Burton apparently insisted on upping the level of gore. His characters looks like animated flesh-dolls in a gloomy diorama, hacking away at each other. I always liked Burton. Admittedly, his bad movies are legion (Batman, Mars Attacks!, Big Fish, Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But his few good ones still stand up, attesting to the deathless hope of escaping conformist hell in America through passionate self-expression, usually represented by weird clothes and big tangled hair and idiosyncratic artistic pursuits. It’s a touching fantasy he can occasionally bring to life.
The good films, in case you were wondering, are Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has its moments, too.
Burton movies often star Johnny Depp, and like many women, I’m all for the Depp. He’s generally seen prancing around in some ridiculous get-up in a movie that’s otherwise unwatchable (Benny and Joon, anyone?) but what the hell. The cheekbones alone are the stuff that dreams are made of.
This time out Depp is as lovely as ever in a fetching Victorian ensemble as Sweeney Todd, "the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," complete with Goth pancake make-up and a white skunk-streak in his hair. He sings a good deal, in his own voice, a pleasant light-baritone, and slits many throats, frequently at the same time. He croons his most romantic ballad to "My Friends," his nice, shiny, professionally-stropped razors. He’s supposed to be bent on revenge, see, after a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) had him transported to Australia on a trumped-up charge in order to take possession of the barber’s beautiful blonde wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and daughter (Jayne Wisener). That’s the back-story, shown in hazy golden flashback, but it doesn’t really matter. We just want to get to the killing.
There’s a lot of the killing too, with the melodic, mostly-sung score by Stephen Sondheim as high-toned accompaniment. Gaping wounds on full artistic display; gouts of blood spewing gorgeously; and plenty of time to admire what special effects can do with the insides of slashed human necks. It’s rare that entertainment with such a lofty pedigree also offers generous portions of things people actually like: revenge, violence and viscera, a protagonist we can root for, occasional humor, nice tunes. Is that so much to ask? A little sauce on the raw meat we crave? Shakespeare didn’t think so! (Unfortunately, that brings us back to the stage again.)
Considering the body count, the whole film is absurdly elegant. Burton was reportedly on a doomed quest for an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and it shows. The art design/set decoration team, Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, won Oscars for their color-wheel knowledge: the best way to showcase blood red is to set it against a uniform blue-gray pall with touches of black and white. Classy! Plus there’s a line-up of fine expensive British hams—Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sasha Baron Cohen—to play the nasty villains taking their seats one by one in the fatal barber’s chair.
The chair itself is cleverly rigged to dump the bodies backwards through a trap door in the floor, down to the cellar to be ground up and cooked into meat pies. This is an added plus for "green" members of the audience, making the whole homicidal process seem efficient and environmentally sound. As the meat-pie-maker Mrs. Lovett says, "Waste not, want not."