Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd
The Demon Barber of
Fleet Street
a kate west review
DreamWorks & Warner Bros.

Pairing quirky film director Tim Burton (“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Nightmare Before Christmas”) with Stephen Sondheim's darkly bloody musical "Sweeney Todd" seems like the perfect macabre fit. And for the most part, the movie works fairly well. But there are a few lapses. Primarily, much of the main cast do not come from Broadway or sing professionally. As theatrical genius Sondheim creates complex, discordant scores, this presents a bit of a challenge.

Johnny Depp is Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker), a long-suffering British barber, whose wife and child were cruelly stolen from him by the envious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). He returns to London years later to wreak revenge and falls in with his mad match Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). The Greek-like tragedy unfolds more and more bleakly as the story goes on and Burton knows quite well how to provide a somber and terrifying mood in spite of some musical shortcomings.

Depp takes on this musical challenge gamely, and is a black demonic Todd, indeed. Although his voice is less Broadway and more pop, it works for him and his wretchedly tortured misery pervades all nicely. Weak link Helena Bonham Carter on the other hand, is grossly miscast. She sings pathetically weakly (“The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest”) and her subtle performance does not fit the grotesquely extreme character of Mrs. Lovett, the psychopathic meat pie maker (Broadway fans will remember Angela Lansbury bawdily booming her little heart out). She looks nightmarish enough, but needs to be much bigger in order to posses the role of someone who can so strongly influence the demon barber of Fleet Street. After all, she needs to convince Todd to butcher people for pies (not that he needs much convincing in his crazed state).

The supporting roles are all fine, such as Alan Rickman’s brooding and lecherous Judge Turpin and audiences unanimously delight in Sacha Baron Cohen’s outrageous rival barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli. The young and rambunctious barber’s assistant Tobias Ragg, earnestly played by Ed Sanders, is a special highlight of the film (sweetly singing of Pirelli’s magical elixir and “Nothing’s Going to Harm You” in devotion to Lovett). Jayne Wisener is all right, if a little wispy and airy, as Todd’s lost daughter Johanna (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”) as is her love, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower). Timothy Spall is a properly slimy henchman to the Judge as Beadle Bamford.

Musical theater purists may protest some of the necessary cinematic changes, such as cutting the operatic opening number which sets the tone for the stage show and basically narrates the story in the grand old fashioned style of ancient tragedy. But since the film medium is one of narration in itself, we don’t need such heralding. The rest of the tunes are intact, including Depp’s eerie introductory “London”, the weirdly delightful “By the Sea” Mrs. Lovett sings to Todd, in foolish hope of a normal life. The makeup, costumes and set are quintessential Burton and most of the acting is quite strong. Again, the main problem is the inconsistent singing.

The constant blood and gore absolutely define Todd’s character as do the dire consequences of one’s action. Abject life and death lessons are to be learned here. If you approach the film as a specific adaptation of a certain work, of Burton’s version of a Sondheim story, it can work for you. Go with someone unfamiliar with the musical, without prejudice, so you can see it with fresh absurdist eyes. No plot giveaways here, just prepare yourself for deep tunnels of horror.

Directed by

Tim Burton

Produced by
Richard Zanuck
Walter F. Parkes
Laurie MacDonald
John Logan

Written by
John Logan
Christopher Bond (story)

Music by
Stephen Sondheim
Hugh Wheeler

Dariusz Wolski

Editing by
Chris Lebenzon

Johnny Depp ... Sweeney Todd
Helena Bonham Carter ... Mrs. Lovett
Alan Rickman ... Judge Turpin
Timothy Spall ... Beadle Bamford
Sacha Baron Cohen ... Signor Adolfo Pirelli
Jayne Wisener ... Johanna
Jamie Campbell Bower ... Anthony Hope
Laura Michelle Kelly ... Beggar Woman
Ed Sanders ... Tobias Ragg
Anthony Head ... Ballad Ghost
Peter Bowles ... Ballad Ghost

The Original Score:
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979 Original Broadway Cast)

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