That Tim Burton is easily the mainstream Hollywood filmmaker most doggedly devoted to artifice is really saying something when you consider how much of the blockbuster game is now inhabited by folks like McG, Brett Ratner and (of course) Michael Bay who pump out astonishingly flat, empty, wholly unreal material with the efficiency of a Terminator going down the “Connor” section of the Yellow Pages. And yet he is, and the difference is that he does it WELL, with real purpose and is often willing to go all the way. He continues to have a visual fondness… well, fetish really… for expressionistic sets that look like sets, slathered-on makeup that looks like makeup and elaborate compositions that look like compositions. The characters in “Sweeny Todd” don’t wear clothing, they wear costumes. They wield weaponry and own knick-knacks that weren’t manufactured, they were art designed. And when they’re cut, they bleed not blood or even “FX blood” but rather gushing torrents of Fire Engine Red paint.
Given that, it’s somewhat surprising that he’s taken this long to direct a full-on musical, a genre so obviously suited to his above-described talents and fascinations. It becomes easier to understand when one keeps in mind the scarcity of musicals grounded in the realm of gothic horror, particularly the realm of gothic horror movies that informs so much of Burton’s cinematic persona. “Sweeny” does, and so here we have the kind of tremendously wonderful movie that results when a filmmaker and project seem almost frighteningly perfect for one another.
There probably was no “real” Sweeny Todd, but the character (short version: mid-1900s serial-killer London barber) is one of those creations of popular fiction so indelible that no one can really pinpoint exactly where he originated – in print, urban myth or otherwise. Stephen Sondheim based his 1979 musical version around one of the more romanticized variations on the story, casting the Demon Barber as the new alias of one Benjamin Barker, a simple man who was wrongly imprisoned so that a corrupt judge could ensnare and rape his wife. He returns to London 15 years later with his new name, a fully-formed psychopathy and a revenge plan that soon branches out into a murder spree: He slashes the throats of his wealthy customers, then drops the bodies through a trap door so that his accomplice Mrs. Lovett can bake the evidence into meat pies to feed her poverty-class customers.
It’s a “slasher musical,” really, but without the level of smug self-awareness that you’d think would be both inherent and ultimately fatal to it. What it has instead is a sense of self-acknowledgment, an altogether different thing. What ultimately killed, say, “Rent” for me isn’t simply the prospect of a jaunty, dancey musical about faux-hemian transients slowly dying of AIDS, but the fact that it refuses to even slightly acknowledge the incongruity of that description: It actually wants to be taken as seriously as a heart-attack, lisping transvestite in a Santa costume and all. “Sweeny Todd,” on the other hand, suffers no such delusions. It’s infused with understanding and acknowledgement, right down to it’s core, that the staging of a big showy Broadway song and dance show about murder and cannibalism is essentially a big, long morbid JOKE; and the comfortable honesty it has about this bleeds (you’ll pardon the pun) into the characters and story arcs allowing them to have depth and emotion that’s real, affecting and honest… even if it IS all part of the joke.
Having good actors helps, having good actors “in-synch” with their director helps more: Johnny Depp has been Tim Burton’s (human) muse since Edward Scissorhands, and while he’s not quite working at “Ed Wood” levels as Todd he’s about as perfectly matched to Burton’s vision of the material as you could ask anyone to be – he’s not afraid to be scary and largely unsympathetic, which is the key to a role like this. It’s a diffcult trick, finding a way around a lead character who enters the film as a revenge-haunted spectre looking only to slay the Judge (Alan Rickman) who made him what he is but then turns to mass-murder mostly out of impotent rage at his innability to do so… but Depp goes at it with both barrells, giving us a Sweeny Todd who – despite all the singing – comes off a lot closer to Freddy Krueger or Dr. Phibes than the Phantom of The Opera.
Helena Bonham Carter gets Mrs. Lovett, and while it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at Burton once more putting his girlfriend in a lead role the plain fact of the matter is that she’s a fine actress and really well suited to the part. It’s at first jarring to see the character, usually imagined as kind of a worn-down Dickensian “fishwife” type, looking more like a Goth pinup fallen on hard times, but it turns out to be the right move for a movie adaptation: Mrs. Lovett may be, ultimately, every bit the monster than Sweeny Todd is, but her evil carries more tragedy in that she doesn’t share his eyes-wide-open self-awareness – she tempers her insanity with her pathetic schoolgirl crush on Todd, all the way to the ludicrous fantasy that they could form some sort of working family unit along with the orphan waif (newcomer Ed Sanders, and what a find he turns out to be!) they’ve taken in to help with the booming pie business. If ever there was a screen role ideally suited to Carter’s porceline doll features, big haunted eyes and natural skill at filling out the expected corset, this is the one.
Neither Depp or Carter are singers by profession, and it shows, and they don’t try to hide it. It becomes a sort of extra-level of stylization. The film boils Sondheim’s thundering big-stage ballads down to angry, rapid-fire spoken-word essays set to music. Depp’s Sweeny doesn’t croon, he howls; while Carter’s Lovett has a voice that must’ve been lovely before life beat it into submission, much like her. On the other hand, Sanders has such a strong singing voice that when he actually uses it it’s a little bit jarring – adding the perfect punctuation of “there’s more to this one than meets the eye” to his key scene: Serenading Mrs. Lovett with the closest thing she’s probably going to get to the devotion she wants. It’s essential that this moment turn the boy into the lone member of the principal cast unambiguously worth rooting for, and he makes it happen.
There’s also a more conventional love story going on between a young Sailor and Joanna, Todd’s now-grown daughter currently being kept as the ward/prisoner of the Judge. This is the least interesting part of the show, and the show knows it: The two generic lovebirds aren’t aware that they’re situation only exists to ramp up the stakes and provide deus-ex-machina for the more interesting pack of nutcases at the center of storm – but WE are, which lends the appropriate level of sadism to their otherwise excruciatingly sentimental scenes together. Oh, and Timothy Spall is here too. Because, really, it’d be MORE surprising if he weren’t.
Who knows if this bold experiment in Burton Unbound will actually work as a cinematic success. After all, gorehounds and musical theatre buffs aren’t exactly common bedfellows. It’s easily the most jagged genre-mix since “Fight Club” announced itself as a combination of existential philosophy and pit-fighting, but hopefully it’ll find more immediate fans instead of having to wait for DVD. But, instant-classic or cult-classic-to-be, the point is it’s a major achievement: Tim Burton’s most fully-formed movie since “Ed Wood” and one of the best films of the year.
FINAL RATING: 10/10