Sweeney Todd made me glad to be a vegetarian. Tim Burton’s latest piece of Victorian Gothic is a celluloid chamber of horrors, stuffed with meat pies beyond even Jamie Oliver’s wildest nightmares. Everyone knows the bones of the story: Sweeney is the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, whose murderous mayhem supplies the muscle and viscera for his neighbour Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. But what you might not be prepared for is the sheer onslaught of slaughter in this rendering of the tale.
Tim Burton brings us the skeleton of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd stage musical, shaved from three hours down to two for this cinema outing. I should put my hands up now and say that I know little about Stephen Sondheim’s oeuvre. I am however a fan of Tim Burton and have seen fourteen of his films. Amongst these, Edward Scissorhands (1990) is practically perfect in every way: a masterful reworking of Frankenstein - that quintessentially nineteenth century bit of gothic. Sadly, Sweeney Todd pales by comparison.
We begin in a corpuscular gloom, and for much of the film we stay there. Both landscapes and people are covered in an almost perpetual slick of grey, whilst the story marks an ever downward trajectory into darkness. It is fifteen years since Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) has walked the streets of London. He was condemned to life as a convict in the colonies by the lascivious and evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). In flashback we see a young Barker, his yellow haired wife and daughter, happy in a sunbathed London of the past, whilst Turpin peers, envious and leering from the shadows. Now Barker is borne back across the sea, to wash up on the grimy pavements of the city a new man – Sweeney Todd. From here there ensues a tale of horror – a depressing narrative where nobody is left untainted by murder, sadism, vengeance and cynicism.
The art direction is, as you would expect from a Tim Burton film, beautiful. From the cockroaches that infest Mrs Lovett’s pie shop to the oddly sinister red feathers that trim the bust of her dress – every detail has been meticulously designed, and Dante Ferretti and Colleen Atwood certainly deserve their Oscar nomination. Yet somehow something is lacking, both in front of and behind the camera. Sweeney’s costume is an echo of Edward Scissorhands’ – all wild black hair and drainpipe black trousers à la The Cure… and then of course there are the razor blades. Perhaps the references are intentional, but they seem self-derivative and stilted, as if Burton isn’t quite sure how to deal with Sweeney’s story on its own terms.
There are some interesting digital shots where the ‘camera’ careens through the streets of London and brings us to Fleet Street. But the excitement this provokes is brief and again, there’s a derivative feeling – didn’t Baz Luhrmann pull this same trick to better effect with Paris, in Moulin Rouge! (2001)?
Similarly, the acting feels like a Xerox copy – close to something original, but not as good. Johnny Depp’s Sweeney sounds remarkably like his Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)), while Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin has the vocal quality of Snape (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)) – but both lack the charm and humour of the originals. Sacha Baron Cohen is unimaginatively cast as a comedy foreign hairdresser with a huge package. Timothy Spall’s Beedle Bamford is all grease and no elbow – you feel he really is going through the Dickensian motions - if Mike Leigh were dead he’d be turning in his grave. Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs Lovett is probably the most complex character in the cast and her performance is the most successful, moving between being humorous, quirky, twisted and sympathetic. She’s also afforded the best scene in the film - a glorious, comic, seaside daydream. But even so, in many scenes she is more subdued and less nuanced than she might be.
All of these actors normally have great intelligence on screen, an ability to improvise and a capacity to create the unexpected. But this film seems to have trapped and deadened them. Occasionally there’s the feeling it might have all been freer and livelier minus more of the stultifying Broadway strings.
Aside from the moot point of the music, this film magnifies many of the weaker elements of Burton’s filmmaking, particularly his tendency to create schematic characters and to favour style over content. Whereas normally Burton can find depth in simplicity and archetype in fairytale, here you get the sense of staring into a void for two hours. One of the charms of Burton’s filmmaking is that he loves his strange creations – he has a genuine affection for Edward and Ed Wood, Willy Wonka, Batman, Beetlejuice and Jack Skellington, an affection that he engenders in the audience. But what’s to like about Sweeney Todd, or indeed anyone else in this film?
As the Sondheim lyric says of London, ‘There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it’s filled with people who are full of shit’. But neither does the film do anything with this tremendously bleak repeated phrase – the metaphor of urban cannibalism/capitalism is left unexplored. Where Burton’s endings are often bittersweet, Sweeney Todd is just bitter. So what are you left with? A lot of blood and guts and not much brain.