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.