Tim Burton’s film version of Stephen Sondheim’s magnum opus, Sweeney Todd, is so terrific in so many small details that it might lead some people to believe that it is a great movie of the show, even dedicated fans of the original. The first song, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” with its goose-pimply, shrieking sopranos, is cut, and that’s fine, since no one needs to see a grimy London chorus singing to the camera, especially as the opener. The casting improves on the show in many ways; the long sequence with Signor Pirelli always felt like filler, but Burton makes it a crowd-pleasing turn for Sacha Baron Cohen, who extracts any laughs he can from his role. The semi-parodic singing lovers of the original are played sensitively by the very young, exquisite Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower, and the simpleton Toby is cast as a small boy (Edward Sanders), which makes his actions much more disturbing. Best of all is Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin, a villain from old melodramas in the show who Rickman makes into a rather flabbergasting combination of vicious libertine and love-struck swain.
It is Rickman’s complex presence on screen that points to the ultimate problem of this Sweeney, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, mature actors in years but still eerily teenaged in their points of view. They’re amazing to look at, like flea-bitten marionettes, and they both contribute to the effect of Burton’s Sweeney as a visual experience. With his chalky, pretty face and dandyish wardrobe, Depp tries to be a sort of punk rock Sweeney, and when he goes into a murderous rage he has the silly/scary bug eyes of a silent film monster. But he can’t seem to take the role seriously; glints of humor keep emerging in his face inappropriately, and the final force of the tragedy just isn’t there at the end: when he raises his razor at his daughter, he could be doing a camp send-up of the material. Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett as a forlorn bit of decayed crumpet, and she’s too small in every respect to give the role the heft it needs. As Angela Lansbury played her on stage, Mrs. Lovett is at her most chilling when she’s at her most outsized, cheerful and gregarious; this is an ordinary woman without one ounce of conscience, and the way Burton gives Bonham Carter a tearful, “what have I done?” close-up towards the end betrays the original character and softens the sustained venom of the piece (notice, too, that he has cut the moment in her song “By the Sea,” where Lovett tells Sweeney that “now and then, you can do the guests in!”)
Filming a major Broadway musical has always been trouble for moviemakers; none of them seem to work. If you look at something like James Whale’s version of Showboat (1936), you can see the problem in its purest form. Towards the beginning of that film, Paul Robeson sings “Ol’ Man River.” Now, just putting a camera down to record Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” is really enough, but Whale didn’t think so. So when Robeson’s Joe sings, “lift that bale,” Whale cuts to him lifting a bale. When Joe sings that he “lands in jail,” Whale cuts to Joe in jail. This laughable kind of literalization of a musical theater song is still happening, over seventy years later, in Burton’s Sweeney. During the lengthy “A Little Priest” song, Burton cuts, again and again and again, to what Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are singing about: “It’s priest,” Lovett sings, and we see a priest. We then see a poet, a fop, and on and on. Burton shoots most of the figures through a shop window, so that they’re slightly distorted, but these images are mainly a way of getting us through a long “list” song. It is also a way of camouflaging the shortcomings in the lead performances (on “The Worst Pies in London,” Mrs. Lovett’s tongue-twisting introductory song, Burton cuts away from Bonham Carter on practically every beat so she can kill a roach or beat more dough, as if he needs to protect her from prolonged scrutiny).
From Whale to Burton, film directors have been afraid that movie audiences will get bored during a theater song. More pressingly, they are also afraid that movie audiences might laugh at the excesses of emotion that can be expressed through song. Sweeney is frankly operatic; when he saw it, that arbiter of the American theater, Harold Clurman, said that they should be putting it on at the Met. When Depp does Sweeney’s huge Placido Domingo-meets-Schoenberg aria of hate, “Epiphany,” he can’t handle it vocally, of course, but he does try to nail this man’s exploding rage with his David Bowie growls. After Depp finishes, Burton brings the emotion thudding down to earth by casting the whole song as a fantasy, leaving his Sweeney looking a little foolish and sheepish in front of the pragmatic Lovett, who is supposed to be our identification figure at this moment (perish the thought!). The story can’t be miniaturized like this if we want to feel even a fraction of the show’s impact.
Burton lets loose with big bursts of stylized bloodletting, and achieves some extremely pretty effects as jugular veins explode all over the place. And surely it’s startling to see Mrs. Lovett actually burn up in the oven. But Burton cannot begin to deal with the sense of tragic inevitability and devouring anger in Sweeney Todd, the way Sondheim’s dissonant genius made a penny dreadful bit of Grand Guignol into his largest-scale, pessimistic artistic statement. Neither can Depp. Over-the-top and indeed grotesquely over-reaching as Daniel Day-Lewis is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, he at least wrestles with the outlines of a vast, suffering, Melville-like figure. In a similar role, all Depp does is strike attitudes. He’s less a man consumed by revenge than a sulky, aging Goth wondering if he should get his band back together or if he should finally marry his girlfriend. Let’s give Burton credit for the intelligence that went into all of the details of his Sweeney, which is the only big, marketplace version of it imaginable right now. Then let’s imagine a smaller, grittier film with Alan Rickman as Sweeney and Meryl Streep as Mrs. Lovett, directed by David Cronenberg with a maximum attention to bodily fluids and romantic despair.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.