As the new version of Dumbo soar into theaters, it seems a long lifetime since a new directorial effort from Tim Burton was cause for excitement. When I was crafting reviews for my college radio station in the early nineteen-nineties, Burton was an exciting presence, developing playfully gloomy visions that seemed revolutionary, or at least smeared-eyeliner subversive. He cast quite a spell. At the time his film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was released, Burton was over a decade removed from his last truly laudable feature and I was still beginning from an assumption of cinematic authorship worth studying. His next movie, which launched the increasingly regrettable Disney practice of raiding and remaking the most beloved artifacts in its back catalog, put a decisive end to that generosity. I think this assessment is still sound, but I’d also wager Burton’s fingerprints on the film look a little different to me now. This was written for my former online home.
I’ll say this for Tim Burton and company: They didn’t flinch. In bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from the stage to the big screen, it would have been so easy to soften the material, finesse away the darkest of the dark elements, demurely turn the camera away whenever the title character opened up another throat. Sure, accusations of cowardice would have been founded and the most fervent devotees of Broadway musicals and Stephen Sondheim would have been tempted to take up their own straight razors against the filmmakers, but so many more tickets could have been sold with a friendlier PG-13 rating. Just a tweak or two to the grim ending, even by simply completing the unresolved romantic subplot involving the earnest sailor Anthony Hope and the sadly imprisoned vision of blonde purity Johanna, could have sent general audiences out the swinging theater doors more likely to trumpet about their fun time in the movie house.
Instead, here is Sweeney Todd, all of its anger and brutality intact, even enhanced by the fearless proximity of the camera, getting so close to the acts of violence that the spilled blood sometimes coats the lens. This boldness is easily the greatest strength of Burton’s direction. It is a solid, commendable effort, but he also winds up constrained by the material. Save for the number “By the Sea,” with which Burton takes full advantage of the limitless possibilities of film, none of the staging is especially novel. Eventually, watching Sweeney again gaze longingly at one of his razors held up to the light or watching another fresh cadaver tumble through the trap door becomes redundant. Even Depp’s performance in the lead role falls prey to this problem. He alternates between dour, glaze-eyed contemplation and snarling cries for vengeance. He does well enough, but there’s not enough variety built into the role. Helena Bonham Carter has more to work with as Mrs. Lovett: More vulnerability, more devious humor, more spirit. She responds with her best work in years.
How this holds up as a representative of Sondheim’s swath of work is better determined by others more intimate with the land of orchestra pits and greasepaint. I most admire the song score when it’s flashing the sort of fizzy word acrobatics that I associate with Sondheim. It, and the story, is at its flattest when it turns to the tortured young lovers. Maybe the melodies in these sections achieve a grandeur or intricate beauty that’s beyond my tin ears.
What limitations Sweeney Todd has as a film seem built right into the very story construction that the filmmakers inherited. It’s hard to imagine a current director better suited to this material than Burton, with his proclivity for candy-coated darkness. He may very well have carried the film as far as it could go. If great films sing, Sweeney Todd hums.