I know, I know – “it’s all part of the point,” I am frequently told. But what is that point exactly, anyway? Revenge stories don’t get a pass just because they are about revenge; they require the understanding of a damaged psyche, or at least some general orchestration that allows the themes to resonate. If there is a genuine meaning to the legend of Benjamin Barker and what he must go through, poor Tim Burton is no closer to understanding it than his predecessors were. And that’s disheartening given how inevitable it must seem for both he and this narrative figure to cross paths. Burton’s skill as a filmmaker is without question, but the dependable undercurrent of his films – in which lead characters are warped by drastic traumas – at least carry the distinction of having rather sympathetic people at the center of the chaos. “Sweeney Todd” robs him of that possibility; the object of revenge is neither that compelling nor interesting, and has descended so far down into the maw of his own agony that all he has to offer is a scowl of disinterest, at least in between slashing throats and exacting vengeance.
The plot: Barker (Johnny Depp), who has spent years away from London, has returned to his home to reclaim his wife and daughter, who were both taken from him by the menacing Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) years prior. The incident is relayed in flashback: Turpin was so enamored by the beauty of the barber’s wife that he used his influence to send Barker out of England on false charges. Unfortunately, as it is suggested by the eccentric Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), Turpin didn’t exactly win the affections of his conquest; she reportedly drugged herself into death and he now keeps their daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) imprisoned as his ward. These details register briefly in Barker’s weary face, but his intentions are made known long before the fate of his loved ones is communicated: he intends to return to his prior profession, lure Turpin into his lair and do away with him as an act of payback. In other words: a conventional act of revenge.
But wait, it gets bleaker. When Barker – now going by the moniker of Sweeney Todd – challenges an arrogant street personality known as Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) to a contest and wins, it inspires a grudge that leads to a shrewd attempt at blackmail, and then ultimately in a brutal murder. Seeking to dispose of the body, Mrs. Lovett – a proprietor of a meat pie business, coincidentally – suggests doing away with Pirelli’s remains in her meat grinder and serving him to customers; the resulting action creates shocking new interest in her business, inspiring further misdeeds in which Todd will cut the throats of his customers (usually while singing) and sending their bodies down to her kitchen through a trapdoor. The cycle becomes almost comical in how grotesque the implication is; both people know exactly what they are doing but have no qualms about joyfully serving these dishes to a plethora of hungry customers, all of them unaware they are partaking in cannibalism. All the same, however, Todd’s ultimate victim remains off in a distance… at least until Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), a young sailor with allegiance to the barber, finds himself drawn to the beautiful figure of Johanna, and both conspire a plot to lure Turpin into a trap as he seeks to rescue his ward.
All of this is inevitably set to music – surprisingly thoughtful and melodic stuff, especially given the cruel nature of what occurs behind it. We expect nothing less of Stephen Sondheim – perhaps the greatest of modern Broadway composers – but even his dexterity is challenged by the possibilities of this bleak premise. The songs are not entirely composed around mere moments or emotions; some of them are bridges to exposition, and relay details that might have seemed more heartbreaking if merely spoken. That certainly adds to the intrigue of what we hear, and the voices of Carter and Depp – whom we do not often think of as compelling singers – are decent enough to fill the material with a certain aesthetic. If we are to judge musicals entirely on the notion of whether they are good at delivering on their primary function, than “Sweeney Todd” certainly meets that requirement. Couple that with a stellar sense of production design and slick cinematography (London has never looked more macabre in the movies), and there is no question that Burton has mounted a rather impressive endeavor in every technical aspect.
What he does not succeed at, alas, is making this story any more interesting as a screen tragedy than it was as a stage opus. Barker’s pursuit is not unlike a variety of well-known plots in the movies, but he seems possessed by a façade of boredom that diminishes the significance of his vindictive agenda. The plot moves him through a checklist of impulses that are forced and dreary, and as the story slogs its way through an unending series of boring scenes in order to arrive at a climactic confrontation, all of the obligatory visual and musical gimmicks are unable to lift us beyond paralyzing disinterest of the outcome. The final scene is certainly the farthest things from a happy ending, but even by tragic measures it seems unnecessarily cruel; we are left with a moment so unbelievably cynical that we walk away from it lost in a haze of concern, not in contemplation of mere characters or their sad situations. In a time when the world is already filled with a sadness that is impossible to escape, “Sweeney Todd” only seeks to remind us that we are part of a cycle of meaningless flesh just waiting to be devoured. In better movies, at least such a thought is used to propel compelling dramatic purpose.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Horror/Musical (US); 2007; Rated R; Running Time: 116 Minutes
Johnny Depp: Sweeney Todd
Helena Bonham Carter: Mrs. Lovett
Alan Rickman: Judge Turpin
Ed Sanders: Toby
Timothy Spall: Beadle
Sacha Baron Cohen: Pirelli
Jamie Campbell Bower: Anthony
Jayne Wisener: Johanna
Produced by Brenda Berrisford, Katterli Frauenfelder, Derek Frey, John Logan, Laurie MacDonald, Patrick McCormick, Walter Parkes and Richard D. Zanuck; Directed by Tim Burton; Written by John Logan and Christopher Bond; based on the musical by Hugh Wheeler