After the cheerlessness and brutality of No Country for Old Men, I’m not sure a film about a serial killer is just what you want.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
After the cheerlessness and brutality of No Country for Old Men, I’m not sure a film about a serial killer is just what you want. I may even be up to here with bloody films about bloodless people. Why not a nice film about nice people doing nice things, like crocheting for the poor? How hard can that be? True enough, Sweeney Todd is a musical, but this doesn’t exactly lighten the mood which, if you are as vigilant and smart as I am, you will spot right from the beginning when slicks of scarlet blood ooze from the opening credits. Hello, Dolly! Now that was a nice musical. Why don’t people make films like Hello, Dolly! any more? How hard can it be?
This is a Tim Burton film adapted from the Stephen Sondheim stage show, and it’s typical Burton, I guess. With a Burton film it is never style over substance because it is always style as substance, which sounds like an insult, but truly isn’t. Everything Burton (now, there’s a man who needs a barber…) wants to say he tries to say with the very look of his films which, if anything, makes his films particularly worth looking at. However, this isn’t to say he always pulls it off. He doesn’t. And he doesn’t here. I know, I know, Sweeney has already received rave reviews everywhere else, pretty much, but who are you going to believe? Them, or me? And remember: I know where you live.
The Sweeney Todd story, Sondheim has said, is about ‘revenge and revenge eating itself up’, so we must understand that Todd was not always the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, slicing the throats of his customers (always a messy business) and tipping them into a cellar for Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) to bake into pies. Once, he was Benjamin Barker, with a good barbering business, a beautiful, virtuous wife and a baby. However, all was stolen from him by evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who, after deporting Barker to Australia on a false charge, has raised the child, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), as his ward and prisoner.
The film opens on Barker’s return to London; a dank, dark, festering London; the sort of place that’ll give you cholera as soon as look at you. Barker sings: ‘There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/ and the vermin of the world inhabit it/ and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit/ and it goes by the name of London.’ He should have come to Crouch End. It is quite green here. Sweeney isn’t a start-stop-sing kind of musical, by the way. It’s sung all the way through, sometimes Rex Harrison-style. Depp can and can’t sing. He can sing well enough for it not to be upsetting but not so well that it’s an added attraction in and of itself. Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly! Now that was singing.
Certainly, Sweeney does have a striking look; the look of one of those old black-and-white photographs that has been retinted in places. It is mostly all monochrome, as if drained of life itself. Todd himself is white-faced with a monochrome hair-do, like a squashed skunk. Occasionally, there’s a burst of proper colour, mainly relating to flashbacks to happier times, or in the form of Sasha Baron Cohen who, in his cameo as a faux-Italian rival barber, is allowed to wear a vivid blue. After a while, you’ll want more of the colour — give me colour! — but won’t get it, just as you’ll want more warmth and humour, but won’t get that either. Without any warmth and humour at all, how are you meant to care? I’m not saying you always have to care about someone in a movie — not at all — but here the story is so ludicrous that, unless you can, why bother?
And here’s the main trouble: I just couldn’t buy into any of it emotionally. I tried to. I queued up and everything, with my purse at the ready, but it just wouldn’t happen. I have nothing against Depp (aside from three Pirates of the Caribbeans; three!) but, for all his haunted, mournful looks, his Todd never adds up to anything more than a blood-lusting whacko. Mrs Lovett? Mrs Lovett is not just an opportunistic hag. We are meant to believe she yearns for both love and motherhood. But Helena Bonham Carter’s performance is so listless it’s hard to believe she has an appetite for anything. The pies? The pies look excellent. I’d eat a pie like that.
Look, go or don’t go. It’s all the same to me. Next week? No idea, although of course I’m hoping it will be a nice film about nice people crocheting for the poor, perhaps even with some big, set numbers: ‘Why hello, doily, why hello, doily…’ When will film-makers ever begin to understand what we truly want?