Sweeny Todd is Burton’s Best

And that’s coming from a Burton fan.

It’s also my favorite movie musical. That’s not coming from a fan of movie musicals. I mean, I like Westside Story, Singin’ in the Rain (minus that ridiculous “Gotta Dance” sequence), and Chicago OK but Sweeny Todd is awesome.

As the movie begins we see a ship sail in to the docks of a dark, filthy London. A young sailor, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) his face full of naive optimism sings, “There’s no place like London!” Then the screen is filled with the tormented, miserable face of Johnny Depp’s Sweeny Tood who sings with the bitterness of one who’s experienced the ugly, festering, vermin-ridden side of that same city, “You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.”

From that moment Depp had me captivated. He is the very embodiment of melancholy anger. His Sweeny Todd is a monster misanthrope whose experience as a victim of malicious abuse of power has convinced him that everyone deserves to die—the oppressors for their sins and the oppressed so they’ll be put out of their misery. So when he loses hope of regaining the life and family that was stolen from him by the evil Judge Turpin (the invaluable Alan Rickman), he goes to work methodically, joylessly giving humanity its just desserts, slitting any throat that he can get away with slitting.

The ever-practical Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), owner of the worst meat pie shop in London (conveniently located below Mr. Todd’s barber shop) sees a business opportunity in all those dead bodies. In a morbidly hilarious song and dance sequence, a butcher’s knife-wielding Depp and Mrs. Lovett look out the window of her meat pie shop and compare the culinary potential of the meat of various kinds of men. Depp asks if there’s a type that’s lean and she responds:

Well, then, if you’re British and loyal,
You might enjoy Royal Marine!
Anyway, it’s clean.
Though of course, it tastes of wherever it’s been!

Burton does a great job of telling the story of Todd’s quest for revenge and Anthony Hope’s quest to rescue the beautiful Johanna, who unbeknowst to Anthony is Mr. Todd’s daughter, from Judge Turpin, who intends to marry the young girl. Telling stories hasn’t always been a strong suit of Burton’s, but here he has great material to work with and he moves the story along briskly and deftly.

Unlike a lot of movie musicals, this doesn’t feel at all like a stage musical. Burton puts the camera close to the characters and we get an intimate look into their souls, be they innocent and hopeful or hardened and hateful. And the film has the dark, gothic visual sensibility that is a Burton trademark.

Much of the credit must go to Steven Sondheim for writing great music and lyrics. While there aren’t a lot of particularly memorable melodies, the songs are filled with witty wordplay and humor and the music is rich and beautiful.

We know that Depp is an all-time great actor, but I wasn’t sure how good he would be singing. He doesn’t have a great singing voice, but that doesn’t matter here. His character’s bitterness, resentment, and madness come through pitch-perfect. Without exception, the rest of the cast, which includes Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall, is great as well.

The movie is a bit of a downer. The picture it paints of humanity is not pretty. There is a glimmer of hope for some of the characters in the end, and we are left with room to believe in nobility and dignity in humanity, but the focus is on the uglier and meaner side. So don’t go into this expecting a bright, whimsical musical. But if you like the occasional walk on the dark side, this one will do nicely.

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15 thoughts on “Sweeny Todd is Burton’s Best

  1. Susan, sometimes a black comedy, and sometimes a drama. The script has horror elements, as well. It’s a big bundle of bleak, bleak wonderful. I haven’t seen the film yet, but the score and book from the stage version are among my favorite works of art.

  2. Susan, your comment is a testament to my (lack of) reviewing skills.

    I wouldn’t say that as a whole it’s a black comedy, but it does have elements of black comedy. Two set pieces, one about the different types of human meat that I mentioned in my post, and another one about Mrs. Lovett’s future dreams for her and Sweeny Todd, are hilarious and morbid/dark. And there are several darkly funny moments and there’s a lot of wit in the lyrics. So it would be satisfying for fans of dark comedies. But the story and dramatic elements aren’t comedic. More tragic.

    It also has elements of a hack-n-slash horror flick, but the slasher in this case is a bit of a sympathetic protagonist, even if he is a monster. There is lots of blood from slit throats.

    It’s kind of hard to categorize. I can’t think of any other movie to compare it to.

  3. I’ve never been a Sondheim fan (apologies to D.), but I am looking forward to seeing this movie. IMO, the art of making/converting musicals for/to the screen is all but dead–and I’d like to see what Tim Burton might do in his own quirky way to bring life back to the art (though I have serious doubts).

    Tom, Tom, Tom,

    The “Broadway Melody” sequence in “Singing in the Rain” is a masterpiece of choreography and staging–cheesy as it may be.

  4. i wish i had the stomach to watch this movie. i loved corpse bride (is that a bad comparison? it was a musical..with the same people) and thought the trailer for sweeney todd was brilliant.

    ..am i the only one who didn’t know that tim burton and helena bonham carter just had a baby together? if that’s not a perfect couple..

  5. Jack: The “Broadway Melody” sequence in “Singing in the Rain” is a masterpiece of choreography and staging–cheesy as it may be.

    That may be. But it literally puts me to sleep. I have to have my wife wake me when it’s over so I don’t miss the rest of the movie.

  6. I’m happy to hear good things. This is probably my favorite musical. In the stage play, at least, the story goes from black comedy to black drama quickly about 2/3 of the way through. It’s very bleak.

    I was a little put off by the trailer, just because it looked so modern gothed out. I was hoping that Burton didn’t overwhelm the source material with his own imprint. Sounds like he did a fine job.

  7. I definitely agree as to its competence on the technical level – truly a stunning film on every level. And yet, I have difficulty answering the “so what?” question that seems to have become increasingly important to me over the last few years. It’s a story very well told, but not a story worth telling in any way.

  8. I think I agree with you that there isn’t a good answer to the “So what?”, though there could be something I’m missing. But I’m going the opposite direction from you lately: that question has become increasingly unimportant to me. It comes and goes. Sometimes I need substance and meaning and value. And sometimes I’m just happy for something that I can admire as a unique, engrossing film with a well-told story. This was so well done and entertaining that I didn’t mind that I couldn’t find further value in it.

    I wonder if there had been more focus on the “good” characters if the film might have made a case for optimism and hope and against Sweeny Todd’s misanthropy. From what I’ve read it seems that the Anthony Hope/Johanna story line was pared down quite a bit compared to Sondheim’s version.

  9. True dat. I saw it opening night with a friend who was captivated the whole time. And I just didn’t get it. The plot just seemed awfully thin, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the great reviews were coming mostly from people enraptured by the novelty of an R-rated musical.

  10. I actually disagree about the “so what” question. This is a story about morality and the consequences of failing to forgive evil. I’m not sure what more we could ask by way of meaning, except perhaps an explicit and underlined moral?

  11. I am a big fan of this musical, but I haven’t seen Burton’s version yet. However, I think that in many productions that I’ve seen the play has answered the so what questions by commenting on the industrial revolution and it’s dehumanizing consequences.

    If I’m not mistaken the original production was staged in an abandoned factory, and clearly Sweeny Todd and Mrs. Lovett’s collaboration is a metaphor for a factory that literally chews people up reduces them to product, or from a person with human value to a person with mere market value.

    Also in stage productions that I’ve seen a shrieking factory whistle is used as a motif and a substitute for human screams.

    In any case, this is a great piece of work on the stage.

    If you guys want to see a film that really makes you ask, so what, go check out “There Will Be Blood.”

  12. Brian, right — the musical has always been an elaborate metaphor for capitalism and class conflict in general, and the industrial revolution in particular. It’s not for nothing that the pie shop serves up pies made of a variety of middle- and upper-class people to the starving masses.

  13. Yes, RT, that much is obvious. Clearly, in its hyperbolic manner, it is a cautionary tale of resentment and revenge. But while the basic outline of the plot holds moral value, I found little additional insight of a more than elementary nature.

    Brian G, the industrial aspect is interesting, but I would need to be convinced that it amounted to more than a few dashes of symbolism.

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