I enjoyed Tim Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd a lot. The music was a lot more appealing this time around, maybe because I was familiar with it this time, and maybe because it wasn’t so aggressively oversung in places, just allowed to flow like the language it stood in for. It helped, too, that the “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” songs were left out, which had really reduced the whole thing for me in that Angela Lansbury version.
Nothing against Lansbury herself, mind you, who was of course perfect in the role she originated — totally believable and frightening in her own right, and a fully expressive singer. Helena Bonham Carter was just as terrific, but while gaining a lot more personal appeal she did lose some of the scare factor. This is most evident in the number where she tries to warm Todd up to brighter dreams, “By the Sea.” When Lansbury does it, she’s so perfectly cloying and disgusting about it that you can well imagine Todd slitting his own throat rather than live out her dream with her. Burton and Bonham Carter turn the song into a really quite adorable fantasy sequence with bright sun and cute little bathing outfits and happy scenes in all of which Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd has the same depressed thousand-yard stare. So we trade some sympathy with Todd (whose only solace is this scary parody of his former wife) for a deeper sense of tragedy (because Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett actually seems like she might make pleasant company, but Todd has eyes only for blood). It’s a fair trade, I think.
About that thousand-yard stare: unfortunately it’s pretty much all Depp was asked to do. In scene after scene, we mainly see him staring into the distance looking depressed or sinister. We know Depp’s capable of more as an actor, so it’s a little disappointing that he doesn’t really articulate Todd’s more complex, conflicted emotions. He’s not quite a robot, a “Sweeney Scissorhands” as my girlfriend wittily put it, but the comparison is apt. Imagine Edward, somehow able to grow up, to grow bitter, angry at a world that exiled him and took away the girl he loved, still showing emotion mostly with his eyes and carrying razors in his hands (“at last my arm is complete again!”). The hair’s still huge and wild, but now with a streak of gray. The pallor’s still there, and so is the virtuosic skill, but now they both mean death.
The singing’s fine. You want operatic talent, see another production. The Johanna/Anthony exchanges are still tedious but not torturous. The look of the whole thing is classic Burton, by which I mean monochrome Nightmare Before the Corpse Bride Visited Sleepy Hollow, and it’s perfect. Sacha Borat Cohen is great fun, though his accent is slippery and there’s too little of him, and he has the second best death scene in the film. In keeping with the story, the ending is intensely depressing. So maybe not everyone’s idea of the best way to start Christmas Eve, but we loved it.
It’s Burton’s best film in at least 10 years. If his cartoon gothics appeal to you at all, you shouldn’t be disappointed.