Just in time for Christmas Burton-Depp’s stab at Sondheim’s goth opera is gory and bloody delicious
If you ask Sweeney Todd to take a little off the top, you’d better be careful.
Likewise, if you ask Tim Burton to go a little over the top, you’re asking for trouble.
Surprisingly, Burton has reined it in relative to the possibilities in his film version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” After seeing the gore, people hoping for a “nice” musical might be running for the exits. And Sondheim’s songs will appeal to fans of previous Burton-Johnny Depp collaborations which, while they may have contained some songs, weren’t practically freakin’ operas.
It’s practically a goth opera at that, with Depp and Helena Bonham Carter dressed mostly in black and grey with pale makeup. And most of their scenes are almost in black and white. The killings, as excessive as a Mel Gibson fantasy, are appropriate to the Grand Guignol style, which adheres closely to the stage version.
Many songs have been shortened, but only a few eliminated in trimming nearly a third from the show’s length. Most missed is the running choral narration, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” but it’s technically redundant as we see everything it described.
The story dates back to the mid-19th century and is possibly based on earlier true events. It’s about a barber who returns to London after escaping an Australian prison where he was sent on false charges by a judge who hoped to steal his wife. Benjamin Barker (Depp) now calls himself Sweeney Todd, and he lives for revenge against Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman).
Sweeney moves back into his old digs above the pie shop of his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter), who has a longstanding crush on him. She tells him his wife took poison when he was sent away, and the judge adopted their daughter as his ward.
Johanna (Jayne Wisner) is grown now. And the judge, who has designs on her, keeps her a virtual prisoner. From her window, Johanna catches the eye and heart of Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), a young sailor who befriended Sweeney at sea. The judge beats and threatens Anthony.
With his razor, which Mrs. Lovett kept for him (or as a souvenir), back in his hand, Sweeney feels complete. He opens for business and soon has his first victim. It’s Mrs. Lovett who gets the idea, the price of meat being what it is, of disposing of the victim and those who will follow in her meat pies. Soon they’re both doing a booming business.
Depp reveals a surprisingly pleasant singing voice, in addition to being born to play the part. Bonham Carter has a sweet soprano sound but sings in a higher register than most Mrs. Lovetts and blends in with the strings, making her words hard to understand. Her thick Cockney accent doesn’t help either, and it’s a shame to waste Sondheim lyrics.
Rickman is effective as his standard villain. Has he ever played a likable character?
Sacha Baron Cohen appears as the snarky Pirelli, but audiences with memories of “Borat” laugh at him before he does anything. He’s not bad, but his history is a distraction. So is Campbell Bower’s beauty: He seems more feminine than the woman he loves. He’d be well cast as Richard Chamberlain’s grandson.
This isn’t a great “Sweeney Todd” but it’s probably as good a film version as we could have hoped for. Sondheim, Burton and Depp, like Sweeney, have “trod a path that few have trod” (sorry, that lyric is from the missing song). It will be interesting to see how many tread the path to see this movie.
TRAVOLTA DROPPED FROM “‘DALLAS’
The screen version of “Dallas” looks doomed. Page Six reports that John Travolta, pictured, has been “fired:” Travolta was supposed to play J.R. Ewing. Although the project has been in development for more than two years, it might not be dead just yet. Page Six says producers are re-writing the script shifting away from a movie drama to a more “slapstick” feel, and that a Ben Stiller-like comedian might play J.R.
DFW CRITICS’ 2007 PICKS
Earlier this week, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association’s released their best-of list. The gaydar needle didn’t bounce much although gay-fave Tilda Swinton won for
her performance in “Michael Clayton.” “Hairspary” got no love whatsoever. Neither did the guilty pleasure “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (but Cate Blanchette did get a nod for her drag role in Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There.”
Top 10 best films
1. “No Country for Old Men,” pictured.
3. “There Will be Blood”
5. “Michael Clayton”
6. “Into the Wild”
7. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”
8. “The Kite Runner”
9. “The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
10. “Charlie Wilson’s War”
Best actor: Daniel Day Lewis, “There Will be Blood.”
Runners-up: George Clooney, “Michael Clayton”; Frank Langella, “Starting Out in the Evening”; Tommy Lee Jones, “In the Valley of Elah”; Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild.”
Best actress: Julie Christie, “Away From Her.”
Runners-up: Marion Cotillard, “La Vie En Rose”; Ellen Page, “Juno”; Laura Linney, “The Savages”; Angelina Jolie, “A Mighty Heart.”
Best supporting actor: Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men.”
Runners-up: Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Charlie Wilson’s War”; Casey Affleck for “Assassination Of Jesse James “; Tom Wilkinson, “Michael Clayton”; Hal Holbrook for “Into the Wild.”
Best supporting actress: Tilda Swinton, “Michael Clayton.”
Runners-up: Amy Ryan, “Gone Baby Gone”; Cate Blanchett, “I’m Not There”; Saoirse Ronan, “Atonement”; Jennifer Jason Leigh, “Margot at the Wedding.”
Best direction: Joel and Ethan Coen, “No Country “
Best documentary: “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”
Best foreign language film: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
Best animated film: “Ratatouille.”
Best Screenplay: Diablo Cody, “Juno.”
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, “The Assassination Of Jesse James ”
Russell Smith Award (best low-budget or cutting-edge indie film)” “Once.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 21, 2007.