There has been no lack of well-made movie musicals this year—from the '60s-era Hairspray and Across the Universe to the Irish folk vehicle Once. But Sweeney Todd is another monster entirely. At a time of year when costume dramas and flashy stage-to-screen epics (like last year's Dreamgirls) make holiday audiences smile and swoon, something like Sweeney is an absolute anomaly. That's because it's a film about a psychotic, murderous barber (Johnny Depp) and his cannibalistic baker accomplice (Helena Bonham Carter). In a season of "goodwill toward all," Sweeney revels in the dog-eat-dog (or, more apropos to this film, man-eat-man) ugliness of human nature.
Based on the popular, offbeat musical by Stephen Sondheim (which opened on Broadway in 1979 and won eight Tony Awards that year), Sweeney spins a grisly tale of barbers and barbarism in Victorian-era London. The film opens as one Sweeney Todd (aka Benjamin Barker)—a world-weary, white-faced, smoky-eyed stranger—sails into London with an ax to grind and a razor to sharpen. In his former life he was a happy barber with a beautiful wife and baby daughter, until one unfortunate day when it was all taken away by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Falsely imprisoned for some fifteen years, Barker emerges from prison as Sweeney Todd, a schizophrenic alter ego with a one-track mind for revenge. Turpin has captured Todd's now-teenage daughter Johanna (played by the buxom Jayne Wisener), and Todd is determined to make him pay.
Unfortunately for the citizens of London, however (or at least those in need of a shave), Todd's singular pursuit of a dead Turpin quickly degenerates into an indiscriminate killing spree in which any and all patrons of Todd's barbershop are given the closest (and last) shave of their lives. Conveniently, Todd's shop is situated above the pie shop of Mrs. Lovett, proud baker of "the worst pies in London." Mrs. Lovett has just as many (or more) screws loose as Todd does, which makes them a deadly pair with the world's most macabre small business venture. The scheme? Todd's aristocrat customers climb in to his ill-fated barber's chair, get "shaved," and are then dumped backwards down a chute into the cellar/meat-packing room. Here they are packed, processed and baked into "meat" pies to be served to the noble clientele who unknowingly consume their Fleet Street neighbors.
Yes, it's morbid. And yes, it celebrates a glut of gore. Not since Kill Bill has bloodletting been so ridiculously overdone. But neither has it been so artistically rendered. The blood in Todd is a gorgeous red-orange hue that contrasts beautifully with the dark blues, grays and purples that are the predominant palette of the film. The blood oozes down cracks and crevices like wet paint, and splattering and spraying like a just-shaken carbonated beverage. Though it's debatable whether the violence in Todd is excessive, one can't deny that there is a certain poetry to the way it is used. Burton here uses it both for irony (as Tarantino does) and at times almost as a sacrament (as in Scorsese). The final shot of the film reminds me of the end of Gangs of New York, when after a symphony of blood and bombs and death, there is a sense of stasis and peace amid the broken bodies and bloodied environment. If it doesn't make you queasy, the final image of Todd evokes the painterly composition of a Goya or Francis Bacon painting.
Indeed, the film's style is definitely its strongest suit. Tim Burton's trademark whimsical goth aesthetic (honed in films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Sleepy Hollow) is never more appropriate (or visually stunning) than in this movie. The costumes by Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha), production design by longtime Scorsese collaborator Dante Ferretti (The Aviator, Gangs of New York), and cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (The Crow, Pirates of the Caribbean) all contribute to a strikingly evoked landscape of the Dickens-meets-Dante, ash-and-sewer London of the film.
Of course, the actors are also essential "props" in the building of the deliciously dark mood of the film. Johnny Depp, who is to Burton what Leonardo DiCaprio is to Scorsese, builds on the "glam-goth eccentric" he has become synonymous with. He can also sing pretty well, which is more than can be said for several of the other leads (Bonham-Carter, though a fantastic actress, is not particularly dynamic as a singer). Other acting highlights include Sacha "Borat" Cohen as a faux-Italian wannabe barber, and Rickman as the merciless Judge Turpin (Rickman sports the trademark emotionless cadence of his most iconic recent role: Severus Snape).
Even though it is a musical and its characters do frequently break into song, Sweeney's songs are not all that compelling in and of themselves. I haven't seen the stage version, but I suspect the musical telling of this story is first and foremost meant to be ironic. As characters belt out kitschy melodies that are full of life and hope, our expectations are shattered by the pervasive and morbid misanthropy that is the rest of the movie. For example, a cheerful ballad like "Pretty Women" (a harmonious duet between Depp and Rickman) is juxtaposed with some of the film's most barbarous images, and the sunny "By the Sea" is an unsettling dream sequence bookended by misery and violence. Sweeney invokes movie musical conventions in a way similar to the recent Disney musical Enchanted: not so much to immerse the audience in a whimsical world of song and dance, but to point out the absurdity of spontaneously singing in world so mired in cynicism.
As entertaining, ironic, and stylish as Todd is, however, it's a film that never quite mines the big questions it raises. Depp's Todd is a striking character in that he inspires nearly no empathy or understanding in the audience. Sure, Todd's wife and child were taken from him and he was wrongly imprisoned. That's rough, but in no way explains or justifies his brutal slaying of countless unshaven men. The film touches on Dostoevskian notions of playing God and purging the world of its lowlife rabble, and at times Todd seems framed as something of a proletariat hero, exacting class reparations by night and knife. "The history of the world is those below serving those above," quips a Marxist-sounding Todd at one point in the film.
Even more interesting than these class issues, however, is the film's uncertain (perhaps intentionally muddled) commentary on justice and judgment. It is repeatedly asserted in the film that everyone is guilty (all men have fallen short) and that we all deserve to die (the wages of sin is death). But there is no redemption or making right of this situation. It's a ruthless cycle in which our best intentions and pure-minded hopes are always stifled by our depraved, animalistic instincts. In the cynically social-Darwinist world of the film in which man routinely exploits, tromps upon and destroys one another, it is poetic justice that man is (quite literally) devouring one another courtesy of Todd and Lovett.
Sweeney Todd is well-made, well-acted, and admittedly a little bit fun (especially if a comically dour view of humanity tickles your funny bone). But if you're looking for a feel-good, life-affirming musical this holiday season, I might suggest renting Once instead.Discussion starters
- Is there anything redeeming in the character of Sweeney Todd? Are we meant to sympathize with him?
- What does the film have to say about class inequality?
- There is a lot about judgment in this film—about justice, retribution, and punishment. Do any of the characters show mercy? Is the film making any comments on justice or judgment in our contemporary world?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Sweeney Todd is rated R for graphic bloody violence. Though a musical and released for the holidays, it's definitely NOT a film for the whole family. As a story about a homicidal, razor-wielding psychopath, the graphic violence is perhaps essential—though be forewarned: it is very bloody. There are more throat-slittings here than in any slasher movie you've ever seen. And if watching a man shave makes you nervous, this film will be utterly traumatic.
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