When the ensemble harmonizes the unsettling baritone with the glass-shattering soprano parts of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd at the opening of the stage production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”, the tone is not only announced but adamantly affirmed. You are in store for a truly bizarre tale that is the epitome of madness and you are being introduced to a man burnt by an unjust system, robbed of everything and everyone that ever meant anything to him who has now returned for his due vengeance and has brought with him a very unhealthy bloodlust. It would seem that there could be no one better suited to translate this haunting story to film than master of the dark and champion of the disenfranchised, director, Tim Burton. Burton begins by hastily deciding to skip the ballad and go straight to what he knows best. Bright red blood drips down walls and slips between the gears of a giant meat grinder, Stephen Sondheim’s potently explosive score driving everything forward. But just as the ballad foretells on stage of unbelievable vocal histrionics to come and amaze, Burton’s decision to remove it in favour of score and visual gore confirms that he will be relying on what he knows in fear of the daunting music he has failed to grasp.
For a director who has built his entire reputation on his creative visual style, it is genuinely surprising to watch “Sweeney Todd” unfold in such an unimaginative fashion. It does not seem so at first. In fact, it is quite a twisted treat to dive in to the cobblestone streets of yesterday’s London, tainted blue and gray by Dariusz Wolski to a saturation point that makes the patrons appear as though they are just waiting, if not begging, for their dull lives to end. Who can blame them really? The light of day rarely seems to rise on London as it is constantly shrouded in heavy cloud. And while the camera hints at the scope of London by weaving from the picturesque rooftops to the dizzying maze of streets, it quickly ceases to a halt on one particular street corner, home to Todd’s barbershop. Despite having so much room to move, Burton traps us here and allows the claustrophobia to set in. This is a fine way to make people uncomfortable but it also makes for some rather limited musical staging. Burton rushes through the musical numbers by slicing lines out (unfortunately some of the more hilarious ones) so that he can get to the action because he knows that their stunted staging slows the pace. Subsequently, he leaves us with nothing more than a bloody mess on the floor.
Further proving the unimportance of technical mastery in this musical is Burton’s decision (with the perplexing blessing of Sondheim himself) to cast untrained singers in the demanding leads. The character of Sweeney Todd requires a voice so powerful and fierce that it resonates fear through the bodies of all who hear it. Johnny Depp surprises with how well he can handle the material but his capable performance never ignites the passion of a mad man. Meanwhile, Todd’s counterpart in scheming evil, Mrs. Lovett, a woman so conniving and desperate that she will say or do anything to make sure her man is content and by her side, is played by Helena Bonham Carter, a woman whose voice is so weak that she is barely capable of communicating any of the colour in the character. Each actor carries the same drab expression on their face throughout the film as though they are bored or just completely unsure of themselves. They each have their moments but neither successfully demonstrates the depths of their treachery or the heights of their dark wit. As they watch each step, careful not to step on anyone’s toes,
Burton breaks a golden musical rule: the musical numbers should never be rushed. That’s why we’re there – to appreciate the beauty of Sondheim’s layered and dense masterpiece. Only that isn’t why Burton is there. Clearly, Todd’s penchant for slashing throats is what most fascinated the man at the helm of this horror story. And while the blood gushing out and splattering against the camera and the walls is both disgusting and exhilarating, it amounts to very little more than gorgeous torture porn. Who knew that Sweeney Todd would be so maniacal that even the insane genius of Tim Burton could not fully comprehend the man himself?
Review by Joseph Bélanger