Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

sweeney.jpg

Blood and Guts
by Eric Hynes

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Dir. Tim Burton, U.S., DreamWorks

It certainly seemed like folly. Not only was Tim Burton making a movie musical—a genre as in demand as color-plate cartoons and pseudo-scientific nudies—he was adapting a stage musical that, though long celebrated for its snarled melodies and grim theatricality, seems as out-of-place on today’s overly anthemic and anesthetized Broadway as it does beneath The Bucket List on multiplex marquees. For an operatic work with a notoriously difficult libretto, Burton not only enlisted non-singers, his casting process netted as leads his own reedy-voiced wife (Helena Bonham Carter) and ho-hum, go-to pretty-boy muse (Johnny Depp). Above all, Burton’s decision to film Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street smacked of a prolonged fixation with, and systematic co-optation of, his macabre sensibility’s source materials. From B-movies, comic books, and trading cards to Roald Dahl and Washington Irving, Burton’s become a gothic Disney, solidifying nostalgia into variations on his own image. Taking on Sweeney Todd seemed a misstep both hubristic and lazy: artistically out of his league yet squarely in his misfit wheelhouse. That it works at all is a major surprise; that it’s a very good movie is as shocking as its geysers of screen-splattering blood, and as satisfying as its potty-mouthed, Pyrrhic pathos.

Based on a 19th-century legend and first staged on Broadway in 1979, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd starred the floor-rattling baritone Len Cariou as the vengeful anti-hero and full-throated force-of-nature Angela Lansbury as his landlady and partner in crime Mrs. Lovett. A justly celebrated televised production of the show starring Lansbury and George Hearn aired in 1982, and has regularly rerun during PBS fund-drives—a tribute to those iconic performances but also to the potent match of respectable theater with sensationalist story. Wrongly imprisoned for fifteen years, barber Benjamin Barker returns to 19th-century London to find that his beautiful wife was abducted and driven to suicide by evil Judge Turpin. Determined to exact revenge on Turpin and whomever else he deems deserving, Barker becomes Sweeney Todd, luring customers to his old shop for a bloody close shave. Landlady Lovett, an inept baker but willing accomplice, finds ghoulish use for Todd’s victims, and before long sales of her meat pies nearly outrun Todd’s spirited supply. Sondheim’s story-committed composition shifts tone at every turn, as melodrama begets horror, which plays as dark humor before spilling into tragedy. Steeped in the street-level theatrics of the French Grand Guignol, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is a work of high art at the service of low—not the other way around. Punctuated by blunt phrasing and blue lyrics, his music aims to satisfy prurient, popular taste even as it finds progressive expression. It’s meant for people who like to gather in a dark room to hear a story, commune with their bad selves, and watch a truly nasty bit of business.

Considering the possibilities for cinematic scope and digital enhancement, Burton’s most crucial and commendable move was to preserve that intimacy. Rather than “open up” the action, as most stage-to-screen adaptations insist on doing, self-consciously and self-defeatingly knocking down walls simply because they can, Burton keeps the action, and the camera, close. Outside of an early, fast-forwarded CGI tour around Fleet street (a silly effect for which, after several years of ubiquity, I still can’t discern an aesthetic purpose), and a necessarily transportive tableau for Mrs. Lovett’s dreamy “By the Sea,” the action is confined to a handful of cramped rooms and narrow alleys, the camera crouching to floor level or looking down from the ceiling as if to keep everything in frame. Unabashedly shot on a studio set, the film evokes bygone standards of film craft—standards that in turn keep Burton uncharacteristically true to character and story while heightening, for viewers now used to boundless visualization, the sense of entrapment. We’re thrust before faces whose expressions in song are not digressions from life but intensely in-the-moment, and we’re not given leave to consider a world or reality outside this one. For it’s fidelity to Sondheim—and to Sondheim’s creation of character through music—that keeps Burton honest. Even the abridgement of Sondheim’s score only tightens focus on the chamber drama at the story’s core. The excising of the beloved “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and its reprises is a clear-sighted faith that what remains—namely, deeply drawn characters—more than fills the lyrical (and narrative) gaps. Restraint, concision, intimacy: these are not qualities I expected from Burton, but it’s to his great credit that he rightfully took his cues from his source, working filmically within the rhythms of music theater. And lo, this film is floridly theatrical.

Faces powdered kabuki white and eyes ringed in black, Todd and Lovett are dressed for the back row but shot in revealing close-up. Lesser actors might have indulged in the artifice or lost the thread of humanity, but Depp and Bonham Carter rise to the occasion, and it’s each of their best work in years. Neither Depp nor Bonham Carter have the vocal abilities to shake the shadows of Lansbury, Cariou, or Hearn, but they’ve created distinctive characters from the same source. Bonham Carter’s Lovett hasn’t the brass and sass of Lansbury, but she has an open-hearted vulnerability that gives her airy tone an emotional truth, and Depp’s Todd exchanges booming masculinity for stitched-together stoicism, his dangerously uncontained anger strategically hiding oceans of sadness. And when Todd’s scheming finally erupts in serial throat-slashing, he wields his razors with elegance and precision, a dancer more concerned with the fine line of his partner than in the impact of his execution. The murders play as ghoulish, exaggeratedly bloody montage, victims placidly succumbing to swift death as Depp seems unaware of their presence, his eyes fixed on the razors and his attention lost in the middle distance of memory and loss.

That Depp’s grim dandyism conjures an older, sharper Edward Scissorhands doesn’t overly distract, but adds a surprising emotional depth to the iconographies of composer, director, and actor. Depp is never less than Todd, but he’s also Edward, Ed, and Willy, their melancholia now tragically unhinged, their sensitivity homicidally smothered. Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin similarly evokes his store of screen villains, but here his preening self-delusion actually resounds, his throat revealingly open in song before meeting its bloody bisection. His “Pretty Women” duet with Depp is rightfully the film’s dark heart, when Sondheim’s lyrics most accurately intertwine in dialogue and his music evokes the uneven rhythms of speech, when two men with different understandings of what’s going on nevertheless pine for the same woman in the same plaintive tone. Not knowing when the axe will fall, we’re caught waiting, fiendishly hoping for it yet wanting the melody to remain. Something must give, and soon the strange beauty of the moment dies.

Beauty yields to gore, but it’s no less satisfying. A full cabinet that’s eager to please (and provoke and disgust), Sweeney Todd leaves no prurient desire unsatisfied. See blood spill! Hear necks crack! See tits cleave! Watch Borat die! Sacha Baron Cohen’s flamboyant cameo extends the anything-goes, let’s put on a show quality of the film, but not even he strays from the determined drive of the music. It’s excess expertly, purposefully dosed. A departure from the unbridled, often empty stylization of his past decade’s work, Burton seems to have finally relocated what made his best films rise above their storyboards. Those films—Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and now Sweeney Todd—offer stylization as strange and spectacular articulations of inner life. These are bedtime stories in which fantasy serves as a cracked window on lost souls and bleeding hearts. First comes song, and the rest is theater.