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January 11, 2008

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Movie Review – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

by HELEN GEIB

Directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd and Helena Bonham-Carter as Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a faithful adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical drama. Whether you will enjoy the film depends almost entirely on whether you like Sondheim’s music and lyrics.

Sweeney Todd, the nefarious barber who kills his customers for robbery and turns their bodies over to Mrs. Lovett to be made into meat pies, is the ultimate fictional bogeyman of English culture. Sweeney had long been a staple of English print and stage when Sondheim created his musical adaptation.

Retaining deadly barber’s chair and cannibalistic pies, Sondheim reinvented Sweeney as victim turned avenging killer through the creation of a tragic back story. Arrested and transported on false charges at the instigation of a corrupt judge who coveted his beautiful wife, Sweeney returns years later seeking revenge against the judge and his lackey. In this iteration of the story, Sweeney is driven to dispatch scores of his customers less by the profit motive than as practice for the main event.

The look of the film has a deliberately theatrical cast. Burton has (artfully) filmed the stage show. The action is largely confined to a few sparsely furnished sets. Lighting is dim and colors seem washed out. When there is a song, the music takes center stage.

Sweeney Todd has garnered positive, if not adulatory, reviews from many critics. Why did I not like it when it and the original work have so many admirers? I will readily admit that the macabre holds very little interest for me. That is undoubtedly one reason I was bored by the film.

But I think the main reason is that I did not enjoy the music. The music was monotonous, and the lyrics generally unexceptional and repetitive. Mine is not a universal reaction, and someone who responds strongly to Sondheim’s work will also respond very differently than I did to the film, which lives or dies on the strength of the music.

Adaptations always carry the implicit question: was the original better? I have not seen a stage performance of the musical, but I might enjoy a top-line version more than the adaptation. Great singers can breathe life into even dull material. Johnny Depp is one of the best actors working in Hollywood today, but he is not a singer. He essays the songs with a passable sing-song delivery. His dramatic performance is much superior to his singing; overall he compares favorably with the actors playing the young lovers, who sing very prettily, but give insipid performances. Bonham-Carter is the most successful cast member at combining good acting and good singing.

2 stars


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 11 2008

    This did get a lot of positive reviews, but you’re not alone. A few people I know were underwhelmed by this movie for the same reasons, and I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it.

  2. Feb 2 2008

    Didn’t really like the movie even though I’m a great Depp fan. He’s not a singer, that’s for sure.

  3. Doc
    Feb 5 2008

    Few theatrical traditions are more difficult to update than the Grand Guignol, probably because our presentations of horror have themselves become so much more explicit since that great venue closed.

    Do give credit where it is due: Bonham-Carter rose to the challenge as never before in a Burton film, and carries more than one scene when others around her seem overwhelmed by the material.

  4. Rishi
    Feb 17 2008

    I agree that the music was somewhat weak in this film. It’s interesting how the bit players completely overshadowed the main cast in their singing. Obviously, Depp, Bonham-Carter, and Rickman were cast for their acting while most of the rest of cast were cast for their singing.

    I still liked this, though, mostly for the art direction. I admit I’ve never seen a stage production, but my problem with musicals is that they paint a sugar-coated view of the world. I like the effect when that view is applied to such a morbid subject matter. There are a lot of films that are at times dark and at times a comedy, but there are so few films that epitomize the dark comedy so well.

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