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.