Singing and Slashing Makes Sweeney Todd Both Sweet and Sickening
By Robert Garver
Musicals are generally an inoffensive genre. Someone may break out a dirty song now and then, but that’s about the
worst of it. The new big-screen version of the Broadway classic Sweeney Todd doesn’t play by these rules. It
adds an element of gore violence, and not only is it an awful lot for a musical, it’s an awful lot for a film of any
kind. But in spite of its gruesome imagery, the film works surprisingly well as a respectable, legitimate musical.
The story goes that fifteen years ago, a kind barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) lived a happy life in London with
his wife and daughter. Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) was obsessed with his wife and wanted her for his own. So the judge and
his assistant Beadle (Timothy Spall) had Barker beaten and arrested on a trumped-up charge and sent to prison for life. Now
he has escaped and forged a new identity as Sweeney Todd. He returns to London, hungry for revenge.
One thing Todd is not hungry for is meat pies. Especially the ones made by his former landlady Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham
Carter). She’s a terrible cook and her pie shop is crawling with cockroaches. But he wants his old room above her
shop back, so he pays her a visit. She fills him in on what happened while he was away: Turpin humiliated his wife and she
poisoned herself. He then adopted Todd’s daughter and has treated her badly ever since. This news does nothing but
make Todd even more upset and bloodthirsty. Lovett agrees to let Todd have his room/barbershop back, mainly because she has
a crush on him, which she does a poor job of hiding.
Todd formulates his plan: he will lure Turpin and Beadle to his shop for a shave and then kill them while they are helpless
in his chair. First, he needs to get word out that he is a great barber. The best way to do that is to challenge current
champion Signor Perelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). The two agree to a speed-shaving contest in the middle of a crowded marketplace.
They even get Beadle to act as timekeeper. Todd wins the contest and impresses Beadle. Now it’s just a matter of playing
the waiting game until Beadle recommends Turpin to Todd and the barber can get revenge on both of them.
Perelli wants revenge on Todd after the humiliation in the marketplace. This leads to a situation where Todd has a body on
his hands and Perelli’s child assistant Toby (Ed Sanders) without a guardian. Mrs. Lovett is more than happy to help
solve both problems. She’s always wanted a child, so she adopts Toby without hesitation. As for the body, remember
how she sells meat pies for a living? She’s not about to turn down a source of free meat…
This is where Sweeney Todd starts to turn nasty. Todd decides that he can rid the world of more than just Turpin, Beadle,
and Perelli. There are plenty of creeps in London, many of whom saw him at the shaving contest. Suffice it to say that as
long as he’s in business, Mrs. Lovett will always have a fresh supply of meat for her pies.
At times, Todd acts like he wants to take out all of London, but he’s not without his soft spots. He’s not about
to do any harm to Mrs. Lovett or Toby. Nor is he about to hurt Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the boy who rescued him from
the ocean after he had escaped from his island prison and who has a sweet little crush on Todd’s daughter. He’s
also willing to give immunity to men with families who remind him of the way he was fifteen years ago. He doesn’t even
want to silence the crazed beggar woman (Laura Michelle Kelly) who constantly accuses him and Mrs. Lovett of “mischief”
that she doesn’t know the half of.
But Todd takes such delight in what he does to London’s fat cats. Apparently the only person who takes more delight
in Sweeney Todd’s violence than the character of Todd is director Tim Burton. Burton is best known for films like The
Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands where the characters look grotesque and some of the subject
matter is macabre, but are actually sweet and family-friendly. Sweeney Todd is neither of those things. It looks
gruesome and it is gruesome.
This is not to say that Sweeney Todd isn’t a fine film. Everyone delivers great performances, although Spall,
Rickman, and Cohen could be used to a better effect. All three are plenty creepy and threatening just by smiling and speaking
normal sentences. They don’t need to be seen doing things like abusing children to get over as villains. But the scenes
with Depp and Carter more than make up for the disappointingly one-dimensional villains.
The songs in Sweeney Todd the film sound just as good, if not better, than Sweeney Todd the stage show. Perhaps
it has something to do with the way that Burton can do things like cuts and close-ups, which are impossible onstage. This
gives the songs and performances a more intimate feeling. Another advantage with the movie format is the safety net of second
takes and do-overs. On the other hand, the stage show has the advantages of booming voices, broad acting, and live reactions.
Burton’s films are often complimented for their art direction, but the sets in Sweeney Todd are a rare failure
for him in this area. Most of the buildings and special effects are clearly computer-generated, and it’s a distraction.
There is a sequence at the beginning where a drop of blood trickles through Todd’s shop, through Mrs. Lovett’s
kitchen, and finally into the sewer. The sequence is obviously animated and all it does is prove that a team of artists put
a lot of effort into an effect that isn’t even convincing.
The poor art direction, misuse of certain actors, and excessive gore keep Sweeney Todd from being an excellent film.
But the songs, performances, and excitement make it more than merely passable. Nobody with a weak stomach is going to enjoy
this film, but those who can handle the violence should find it a surprisingly tasty treat (much unlike Mrs. Lovett’s