I know a lot of people have difficulty with musicals. It is hard to sit and watch a story and have the characters spontaneously burst out into song. I enjoy them; good musicals serve to transport me and I suspend belief and go with the flow, accepting and expecting the characters to begin bursting into song at any minute. We have been fortunate to have a revival, of sorts, of the genre in the past decade or so. Disney Animation has kept up the tradition, but as far as live action musicals, the genre died for a number of years. With the release of “Moulin Rouge” (love it or hate it, there is no in-between), the genre was reborn. “Moulin Rouge” led to “Chicago”, leading to “Dreamgirls”, which led to “Hairspray”.
Many may not be aware there are actually two kinds of musicals created for Broadway and film. Traditional musicals tell stories and the characters sing songs to express their emotions and to move the story forward. There are also ‘operatic’ musicals. These feature the characters singing throughout most, if not all, of the story. Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is an example of an operatic musical.
Even with the rebirth of the genre, musicals are a difficult sell. “Hairspray” did well because it featured a bunch of young stars kids and tweens are familiar with. “Chicago” did well because it received a lot of awards and positive press. But they are difficult sells which is why they probably always feature funny, romantic or upbeat storylines. So, I was surprised to learn “Sweeney Todd” was going to be made into a film. It isn’t particularly romantic, although much of the story has to do with one man’s love for his wife. It isn’t particularly funny, although there are some moments of black humor. And it certainly isn’t upbeat.
Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp, director Burton’s muse) returns to London from prison. We learn Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, perfectly cast) sent Todd away on a false charge because he coveted Todd’s wife. While he is in prison, Todd’s wife dies and Turpin takes in his daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener) as his ward. When Todd returns, he meets Ms. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) his former landlord and sets up shop above her meat-pie emporium, where she proudly sells the worst meat-pies in London. Todd intends to use his former profession, barber, to extract his revenge on Turpin, Beadle (Timothy Spall), his accomplice and any one else who gets in his way, including an Italian barber (Sacha Baron Cohen) who may steal some of Todd’s business. But as Todd’s body count rises, he and Ms. Lovett have a problem. What do they do with all of the bodies? Ms. Lovett comes up with a plan and her meat-pie shop becomes more popular than ever.
Directed by Tim Burton, “Sweeney Todd” seems to have found the perfect director for the subject material. Really, the only other director I can think of who might have been a better choice is Peter Greenaway. Both directors treat the screen as a canvas and create beautiful imagery out of strange and sometimes dark material. Burton brings London, in the mid 1800s, to life, complete with black smoke, dirt and grime. It is hard to imagine people living in this London, Burton’s recreation, but that is sort of the point. Unless they were rich and well-off, like Judge Turpin, people struggled to survive. As the film begins, and Todd sings of London being a cesspool of despair, Burton makes us believe in this image of the world capital. This may be the first time I have seen London depicted in such a dirty, grimy state. Other stories have shown this side of London, but those films are usually filled with night scenes. Burton places much of the action in “Todd” during the day. There seems to be perpetual fogs (both literally and figuratively) hanging over the city, making everyone appear a little more sallow and unhealthy.
As soon as Todd returns to Ms. Lovett’s shop, she offers him one of “The Worst Pies in London” offering us more of a glimpse into her life and the life of people living in this city. This moment also helps to establish their relationship. Lovett appears to not recognize her former tenant, he does look quite different, but when he reveals who he is, she states “I thought that might have been you.” It is Lovett who reveals what happened to his wife and daughter, and this sets Todd on his murderous rampage. But Lovett is also a little attracted to Todd, even in his murderous state. Apparently, there are worse catches in London, the London of mid 1800s anyway. Maybe this is still true today.
Johnny Depp is always a strong actor. He may not appear in the best movies (see the third installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean” for an example) but he is always at least interesting. In “Todd”, he further explores a character he has been building with Burton over the course of their careers. Sweeney shares similarities with Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and all of the other characters Depp has played in Burton films. Burton really found his muse when he started to work with Depp and any actor would relish the opportunity to play such strange characters. It is really a match made in heaven for the two men.
In “Todd”, Depp also proves he can sing. He isn’t a formally trained singer, but he does a remarkably good job with what must be a difficult role. If you look at “Todd” a little closer, Depp, an American, has played many Brits throughout his career, but to sing with a convincing British accent? That is the challenge and Depp pulls it off very well. I have a feeling this is the aspect of the role that attracted Depp to the film in the first place. He has played very strange men before but never one who sings. And to sing an operatic score? That is an even greater challenge for an actor.
As Todd, Depp shows us the rage simmering beneath the surface. It is really amazing to see this anger boiling, threatening to pour out at any moment. But Todd knows he has to keep it in check. He has a plan and if he lets the anger overtake him, his plan is ruined and he will never be able to avenge his wife’s death or rescue his daughter. Turpin is his goal; everything else is just a stepping stone to vengeance.
He also seems to regard Ms. Lovett as a necessity. He clearly recognizes she is more interested in him, perhaps in a romantic way. While he doesn’t seem to share the level of ardor, he recognizes he needs her to keep his plan moving forward, so he plays along, stringing her along until he reaches his goal.
Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s wife, is not a classically trained singer either and she does a very good job. Ms. Lovett is not quite as desperate as Todd, at least on the surface, but she certainly has things she desperately wants to have happen. She sees in Todd perhaps her last chance at happiness, strange as that may seem given the barber’s psychotic tendencies.
Has Alan Rickman ever turned in a bad performance? Like Depp, he has appeared in mediocre films, but anytime he appears on screen, he brings the project, good or bad, to life. Because he has played many villains, it was nice to see him play Emma Thompson’s husband in “Love, Actually”, a character similar to the role he played in his first big film, “Truly, Madly, Deeply”. But villains is what he is best known for so, in “Todd”, Rickman plays Judge Turpin, the man who changed Todd’s life forever. Turpin’s reason? He coveted Todd’s beautiful wife and had Todd locked up, taking his daughter in as his ward. The beautiful wife? She couldn’t stand the thought of living in Turpin’s hands, so she committed suicide. When Todd returns, he sets his eyes on Turpin and would love nothing more than to get him in his barber’s chair and give him a very close shave.
During the intervening years, Todd’s daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has grown into a beautiful young lady. Naturally, Turpin can not hide his feelings and tries to keep her hidden from the eyes of handsome young men. When this proves too difficult, he decides he will marry her. This man is truly despicable and Rickman manages to portray his desperation in a convincing, fascinating way.
Timothy Spall plays Turpin’s oily henchman, flouncing around, always at Turpin’s side. When he is on his own, he knows his position carries a certain amount of power and prestige, which he isn’t afraid to show.
Sacha Baron Cohen plays Signor Aldolfo Pirelli, the Italian barber who may provide some difficulty to Todd, stealing some of his business and hindering him from reaching his goals. The moment Cohen appears on screen, everyone recognizes him and the accent he uses is so ridiculous, it is hard to separate the actor from the role and it proves more of a distraction than anything else. It smacks of stunt casting and brings the film down a bit.
There has been a lot of comment about the amount of blood in “Todd”. Necks are slashed and a lot of blood flows, but the blood becomes cartoony and comical very quickly. It is ketchup red and flows so freely you can’t help but laugh. Also, what else would you expect to see in a film about a barber who uses a straight razor to cut people’s necks? In the middle of the film, as Todd works towards his goal, so many people fall victim to his razor during one musical number it is difficult to feel queasy.
“Sweeney Todd” is a very good film. Definitely not for everyone, it is an acquired taste many will appreciate.