Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Believe me when I say I really wanted to like this movie. I love the Stephen Sondheim musical its based on. (It’s one of my favorites.) I love Johnny Depp. (He’s one of my favorites.) And I thought Tim Burton might just be the right director to bring Sondheim’s dark musical tale of revenge to the big screen. At the same time, I knew my expectations were too high, so I lowered them, preparing to be disappointed—especially after I heard snippets of the soundtrack with Helena Bonham Carter singing the role of Mrs. Lovett.

After seeing the film on opening weekend (this review is just a tad bit tardy) I was disappointed, but not in the ways I’d anticipated. Bonham Carter was better than I’d expected and I was underwhelmed by Johnny Depp’s performance. Most surprisingly, I disagreed with many of the creative decisions made by the filmmakers.

The Plot: The story concerns a barber imprisoned on a trumped-up charge by a corrupt judge who covets the man’s beautiful young wife. Many years later, the barber returns to London under an assumed name, plotting his revenge on the judge. He opens a barbershop and slits the throats of unsuspecting clients, biding his time until the judge makes it to his barber chair. Mrs. Lovett, the woman who owns the pie shop below uses the non-stop meat source provided by Sweeney to enhance her meat pies, which soon become the talk of the town.

My thoughts:  (Warning, spoilers ahead)

  • Johnny Depp, WHOM I expected to love in the role, gave a one-note performance. Perhaps I know the play too well, but he didn’t bring anything new to the part. After his original, gutsy take on Jack Sparrow, I guess I expected more. His Bride of Frankenstein shock wig wasn’t enough to pull it off.
  • Don’t get me to explain the Academy Award nomination he’s received. In my book, these awards are meaningless and rarely honor the true greats of any year. I think Johnny Depp is the kind of actor who garners a nomination whenever he takes any sort of a risk. If he wins, it will be because people wanted to see him win for Jack Sparrow, more of a career achievement award.
  • Like Depp, Helena Bonham Carter’s performance has garnered mostly positive reviews, so I’m in the minority when I say it just didn’t work for me. When acting, she was fine, better than I thought she would be, but I thought her singing was strictly adequate and her voice thin. Her singing character just didn’t have enough umph in it to carry the part.
  • I thought Depp and Carter came off as too young for the roles. Just a general impression.
  • Where was the chorus? I realize in adapting Sondheim’s musical to the big screen alterations had to be made, but eliminating all the numbers that involved the chorus (Londoners living in and around Sweeney’s neighborhood) in my mind missed a few opportunities to energize the production. As the film goes on, it starts to feel very claustrophobic; almost all the action takes place in the pie shop and the barber shop upstairs and centers a good deal of the time on a handful of main characters. The scene where Mrs. Lovett and Toby are madly rushing around serving customers (the lively, chaotic number “God, That’s Good” that opens the second act of the musical) fell flat because the customers were mute. They were there, why weren’t they singing? A missed opportunity for a show-stopping number
  • The identity of the crazy beggar woman is too obvious. Without a chorus of singers for the beggar woman to meld with, she’s more prominently featured which ruins the element of surprise when her identity is revealed.
  • Call me a purist, but I really missed that shock of a factory whistle that traditionally opened the show.
  • There’s a lot of blood in the film. The budget for fake blood must have been enormous. Bright, red, artificial looking but nonetheless effective blood. I have a fairly high tolerance for this kind of thing, but even I was thinking “enough already” after the tenth slashing in gory detail. And the first time we see a body hit the chute to the basement, squashing head first on the brick floor, was startling. The third and forth time we saw it was just gratuitous.
  • While I loved the “By The Sea” sequence, I hated the transition in and out of it. It made no sense to have Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney and Toby on a picnic
  • in the country only to morph into the colorful fantasy sequence. The effect was undermined in two ways: The punch from the previous palette of blacks, grays and blues to the Technicolor seaside was diminished by the pastoral setting that was ever-so-slightly greenish; and by having these gritty, urban characters fantasizing about fleeing the dirty, gray industrial city for the breezy seaside when they’re already in the country pulls the rug right out from under the scene. Plus, while it made for a tricky visual dissolve from one scene the other to have Sweeney sitting on a picnic blanket (next to Mrs. Lovett and Toby), the comatose state he was in looked stupid.
  • I hated Tim Burton’s interpretation of the showcase number, “A Little Priest.” This is the moment when Mrs. Lovett gets her brilliant inspiration for how to dispose of the bodies. She and Sweeney imagine how the different flavors of “meat” will bake up as pies. Choosing a literal interpretation of the song, with Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney standing at the window looking at each type of person (actor, lawyer, priest, fop—okay, maybe that’s not such a good example for an American audience) was uninspired and sapped the song of its humor.
  • Sacha Baron Cohen handled the role of pompous Italian con-artist barber Pirelli with aplomb. Alan Rickman, whom I would pay money to see read the phone book, was fine but nothing special as Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall was perfectly cast as his sinister assistant, Beadle Bamford, but he didn’t have a whole lot to do.

I’d give Sweeney Todd 2.5 out of 5 bottles of Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir.


2 thoughts on “Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

  1. Thanks for this. I am waiting for the DVD and even though might not see it. It hasn’t interested me.
    Have you ever seen The Libertine? Depp was in that and I swear, that was one of his best performances of all time. No idea why that film didn’t get any press.

  2. I too adored the stage version (and found the non-musical film interesting) and have been wondering about this. Thanks for this review.

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