This isn’t Tim Burton’s masterpiece. He made that nearly twenty years ago. It was called Edward Scissorhands. Everything that Burton brings to cinema was there in that movie; the kitschy gothic aesthetic; the lonely girl; the misunderstood male lead. Burton is not a great director (he doesn’t have intellectual ambition for his movies), but he’s so idiosyncratic that maybe there’s room for him among the greats. Sweeney Todd could have been made by David Cronenberg (and it would have scared you) or Sam Mendes (and you would have swooned), but only Tim Burton could make a movie about throat-slitting into a fairy tale.
Sweeney Todd is based on a Steven Sondheim musical. It’s a revenge story. Johnny Depp plays the eponymous Sweeney, formerly Benjamin Barker, a barber in Victorian London. Wrongfully sentenced to twenty years in exile by a wicked judge (Alan Rickman) with designs on his missus, Sweeney returns to murder the judge and re-connect with his severed family. All set to music. Along the way, Sweeney meets the owner of the worst pie shop in London (Helena Bonham Carter) and conducts what must be the bloodiest romance in movies (let alone musical theatre).
Quite what the audience for this movie is, I have no idea. The score will doubtless appeal to the Chicago crowd, the visuals to Batman admirers, and the blood will keep even the most ghoulish Saw fans happy. But will any one of those demographics want the other two thirds? Why would blood-hounds want to watch a musical? And vice-versa. The movie is a success, in that it is a real Tim Burton movie and a faithful adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s work, but isn’t that kind of a Pyrrhic victory? I can see Burton might convincingly argue that Sweeney needs that much blood (S.T. is a serial killer after all) but is it what the West End/Broadway mob are baying for?
Johnny Depp does well, but he’s not at his best. Something about having to sing his lines seems to dull him a little. He’s muted. Though Burton dolls him up with a white-streak in his hair and six layers of black (plus pasty white skin), there isn’t enough to Sweeney for Depp to make an Edward Scissorhands out of him. He’s good when Sweeney turns psychotic (a history as a hotel-smasher helps), but he looks stiff most of the time. It’s as if everyone else raised their game because Depp had the most exciting character, but the net result was that everyone else got interesting, and Sweeney faded away.
Helena Bonham Carter does better. She was born to play a retro-Goth in a cannibalistic musical. In a nice way, I mean. Ever since she married Tim Burton their union has seemed more and more apt. Ok, so maybe Lucy Honeychurch wouldn’t have fit into the Burton universe, but Helena Bonham Barter would. She’s small, she’s pale, she dresses like the lights are out in her bedroom… there’s a haystack where her hair should be… and she’s crazy. Could Burton have picked a better bride? As Mrs. Lovett, Carter plays a woman who wants to marry Johnny Depp even if he is a serial killer. She is a one woman argument in favour of nepotism.
Sweeney Todd gets by on casting and one hell of a score. I’m not a huge musical fan, but there are at least three songs in this one that work as songs, not just as songs in a musical (yes, I do hate most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre). It might not scale the heights of imagination that Edward Scissorhands does (it doesn’t have Edward’s perfect allegory) and it doesn’t have the commercial savvy of Batman, but there is drive and passion in Sweeney’s story and you feel his hate, even if you never know him. Tim Burton’s best movies are about outsiders, but they’re also about forgiveness. Revenge just isn’t enough to make a Grand Guignol a great film.