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Non-Review Review: Sweeney Todd

Ah, the musical. The genre of choice for middleaged women everywhere. One of those glamourous shallow callbacks to the golden era of Hollywood. I was intrigued when Tim Burton announced his next project was a musical – an adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. I was familiar with the myth of the man, but not the musical. I ended up being served a treat almost as fiendishly decadent as Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies: a little flaky and suspicious in places, and a lot more filling than it should be. Magical, macabre, magnificent. It’s isn’t classic Burton, but it’s certainly vintage.

Get ready for a close shave...

Get ready for a close shave...

The story is wonderfully straight-forward. It’s a saga of revenge and despair against the back drop of Victorian London. After losing both his wife and his daughter, barber Benjamin Barker has returned home. Finding nothing of his old life remaining, he carves out a new identity for himself: Sweeney Todd. If you know the rest, it’s a well-told version. If you don’t know the rest, you’re in for a treat.

Burton has always been something of a gothic fairy tale director. His movies are populated with sinister freaks and a bizarre darkness. This film represents perhaps the bleakest of that darkness. Even the raging furnace in the bakery beneath the barbershop does not shine a light strong enough to pierce the black heart of this tale. Bad men do bad things to each other. Those looking for joy and hope are best advised to look elsewhere, or they will likely find themselves as disappointed as Barker himself. I don’t mean this as a negative statement – Hollywood is too fond of musicals punctuated with stylish dance routines and empty singing with a ridiculously bright sun shining down. Here it is hidden through the dense London smog, and we’re glad – it allows Burton to offer us a view of the varied wild life that only come out in the shade.

That Depp and Carter are fantastic as leads should surprise no one familiar with their work. That they are great singers is a cherry on top. Having sat through Mamma Mia, I appreciate how rare it is to find a great actor who can carry a tune, and all the players here equip themselves well. Depp is darker than he’s been before. Sweeney Todd isn’t meant to be a particularly real character – he’s a grotesque monster in an urban nightmare. Depp manages to embody that character particularly well. I’m not sure the performance deserved its Oscar nomination, but there have been worse choices. Carter is somewhat more sympathetic (only slightly) as the baker and pie-maker Mrs. Lovett. Her accent is flawless, and her body language invests a lot of humanity in a fairly thin role. Her eyes in particular hint at great loss and sorrow in a way that is really just incredible.

The rest of the cast are adequate, as they don’t really play fully-formed characters so much as plot constructions and obstacles. The two possible standouts include a scene-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen (“he cut-a the hair, he shave-a the face”) and Timothy Spall as the Beadle. Again, the plot is fairly light, but Burton doesn’t need plot. He works with tone. And this movie is – stylistically – a treat. The colours are muted, grim – but the red is red. And be warned – there’s a lot of it. It’s striking and never boring to watch. Burton’s work looks unlike any other director’s, which is a very pleasant aspect in an era where we seem to be producing music video directors to beat the band.

The film isn’t perfect. There are in particular problems fitting parts of it together. The CGI is intentionally (at least I hope it’s intentionally) ropey, calling to mind the two-dimensional sketch work of the Monty Python team. There are times (as with panaramas of the urban cityscape stretching forever) that this works well, but it doesn’t really work during the credits sequence. It look bad there. I also doesn’t really gel with the set design – which is cold, but realistic. It seems like this two-dimensional cutout city is somehow intersected with real-world locations. I’m quite disappointed that the set design isn’t more absurdist – perhaps it would match the rest of the production better.

The music is fantastic – in particular the ominous orchestration of the overture – but the songs don’t seem to stick particularly well. It’s a shame, because some of the individual lines are quite witty.

So, it’s a great film, but it isn’t the best that Burton or Depp have worked on (either alone or together). Nor is it the worst. If Burton were an adjective, I would say that this film were simply Burton. There’s never been a Hollywood musical like it.

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2 Responses

  1. [...] world of film « “It must be hard to love political correctness…” Non-Review Review: Sweeney Todd [...]

  2. [...] not the first attempt at a macho musical. Sweeney Todd and Repo! The Genetic Opera both rejoiced in bringing music to the screen amid huge amounts of gore [...]

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