"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (**1/2)
(There’s a lot of misinterpretation going on simply because I joshed Tom O’Neil for going so over-the-top in his review and pointed toward odd but telling discrepancies in Jeffrey Wells’ take. So, I’m going to be measured here…)
I love Tim Burton. He has built a 22-year career on pure visual seduction. He has been pegged – usually by way of criticism – as a virtuoso of style above substance, but I have always found much to admire in his expressionist portrayals.
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” presented a certain opportunity. On the surface, many felt the marriage of Burton to Stephen Sondheim was a match made in heaven. More to the point, however, the chance for the director to plumb thematic depths such as this hadn’t been more apparent since his masterpiece, “Edward Scissorhands,” 17 years ago.
But before I talk about what didn’t work for me in this, the final big unveiling of the 2007 Oscar season, allow me to knock out the positive assessments first. They are considerable.
1) The design elements are perhaps some of the most accomplished of Burton’s portfolio.
That is saying something indeed. I would say only “Sleepy Hollow” comes close, a veritable orgasm of visual splendor no matter your opinion of the film.
Dante Ferretti’s production design captures the pungency of London less whimsically than we might have expected from frequent Burton collaborator, Rick Heinrichs. Colleen Atwood’s costumes are exquisite and varied. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography makes every scene look like a painting come to life. The makeup effects lend a certain cartoon-ish quality to the blood that works better than I might have expected, and the bright red contrast against the monochrome is sheer morbid delight.
2) Johnny Depp is wonderfully subdued...
… if hindered by a lack of scope upon the character’s translation to the screen – but more on that in a moment.
Depp inhabits this film like a classic movie monster, and “Sweeney” announces louder than ever that this is one of our biggest stars. What’s more, while Depp sings well enough to be acceptable, he also manages to actually act while crooning, better than most performers we’ve seen. That’s no small feat.
I don’t think this performance is quite on par with some of the actor's prior offerings, however. I would count his work in “Ed Wood,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The Libertine” as more accomplished. But Johnny Depp on a so-so day beats any number of actors on their best day.
3) Burton handles many of the musical numbers with outright artistic brilliance.
The best examples would have to be Depp’s “My Friends” duet with Helena Bonham Carter and Carter’s “By the Sea” sequence, which is hilarious in its cinematic vision. I’m on guard in musicals, and many of the numbers don’t work well in “Sweeney” (to my taste), but these two especially showed the director inching toward a certain greatness that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Also, the “By the Sea” number is the one that will win Dante Ferretti his second Oscar, and, perhaps, Colleen Atwood.
4) Borat steals the show.
In just two scenes that speak volumes to his charisma, Sacha Baron Cohen (who I haven’t seen singled out yet) pulls the rug out from underneath any actor within earshot. Burton’s decision to cast the “Borat” star in the pivotal role of Adolfo Pirelli was incredibly inspired, but moreover, it gives us another glimpse of Cohen as a screen persona to be reckoned with.
Now, I admit there are elements working against my liking this film going in. At the top of that list is the fact that sing-through musicals rarely work for me on the big screen. Speaking strictly in recent terms, Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) and Bill Condon (“Chicago” – not so much with “Dreamgirls”) have proven that the genre can be a cinematic breed with cinematic ideals, so I’m not of the mind that it can’t be done. But my problems with “Sweeney Todd” do not so much involve genre specifics (though Helena Bonham Carter is a terrible singer). They do, however, lie in the basic desire for dramatic range.
Major Sondheim fans will fall in love all over again. When that organ booms across the Dreamworks logo, they will be lost in paradise for the next two hours. But much as I hate criticizing a film for what it isn’t, rather than what it is, I couldn’t help but wonder why some creative bridge wasn’t employed to draw the audience into Todd, rather than keeping them at arm’s length with a simple translation from stage to screen, minus this or that.
In reacting to the film earlier today, Jeffrey Wells said the story contains “a tragic, grand guignol metaphor about how we're all caught up with some issue of the past – needing on some level to pay the world back for the hurt and the woundings.” He hit the nail on the head as it pertains to what the film could have been.
Personally, I couldn’t shake the notion that Todd was a one-dimensional rendering, a character I couldn’t have cared less about due to a lack of connectivity. When tragedy befalls the man, the intended effect of sorrow didn’t wash over me. It could have been Shakespearean. It works on the stage, because the stage is a breeding ground for broad strokes – but film is a more intimate art form and, ultimately, these grand thematic ideas Wells mentions didn’t have room to grow.
But I am certainly no hater. I don’t want to pan the effort, and, actually, I want to see it a few more times. I still feel the movie on my skin today, you see. It is a marinade of flavor that can’t be ignored or even disregarded. I still, more than ever, think Burton is one of the screen’s greatest living commodities. He clearly had a blast working with this material, and in many ways I’d say “Sweeney Todd” might be the most “Tim Burton” Tim Burton film to date. But I nevertheless think it resides on the lower rung of his work. It might work for you, it will, I’m sure, work for many (and has) – but it doesn’t work for me.