Film discussion

Looking Back at… Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

My mother hates Tim Burton so much that you’d assume he broke her heart in high school. She would claim he was too “dark” when I begged to check out Beetlejuice from the library, or that his style was “too depressing” while I pleaded to rent Mars Attacks! at Blockbuster. At one point, my heckling was so incessant that I was punished with the promise that I would never be allowed to buy The Nightmare Before Christmas while living in my parents’ house. Twelve year-old me was shook.

Throughout it all, I could never understand why my mother thought Burton was some purveyor of nightmare fuel. One watch of Edward Scissorhands was enough to show Burton as a director of empathy and kindness, even if his colour palette tended to be dark and his sets expressionistic. This would continue all the way through to his one-two punch of Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005, which seemed to signal that Burton had settled into a groove of weird, but easy-to-digest family films. Then along came Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

When it opened in December 2007, Sweeney Todd made quite the splash with both critics and diehard Burton-ites. A violent musical with wall-to-wall blood and singing not only showed off new strengths for the director, but also demonstrated a new emotion that had been lacking in his previous films: rage. Here was a director who had paid lip-service to the dark and macabre his entire career, while his stories traded harshness for empathy. Not so here.

For those unfamiliar with the legend of Sweeney Todd, it concerns a wrongfully-accused man who returns to London hell-bent on murdering the judge who sentenced him and raped his wife. When he finds out that his wife is presumed dead and his daughter is the ward of the judge, Sweeney teams up with his neighbour Mrs. Lovett, re-opens his old barber shop, kills his customers, and has Mrs. Lovett grind the bodies into meat pies. Just add in some dance numbers and you’ve got a musical classic!

The general plot of the story does not afford many moments of happiness to the characters, but Burton directs his regular collaborator Johnny Depp to perhaps the angriest performance of his career. Much was made at the time of Depp’s lack of singing ability, and while his voice is undeniably thin, he overcomes this by imbuing every word with either snarling rage or tortuous regret. Rarely has a musical performance conveyed such hate in a performance.

In another rare feat for a Burton film, almost every role here is acted at a level that could warrant awards consideration. Helena Bonham Carter makes up for a lack of singing range with a spirited take on Mrs. Lovett, Sacha Baron Cohen (red-hot after the success of Borat) is shockingly good as rival barber Pirelli, and Alan Rickman brings a gravitas to the evil judge that makes him an equal match for Depp’s scene-chewing Sweeney. For all the love his Harry Potter role may get, this may be the final great performance of his career.

The below the line aspects remain similarly striking even ten years later. The Oscar-winning production design oozing expressionistic darkness and rot, conveying the internal decay of the characters, while the score (a rare non-Elfman score for Burton) adapts the melody of the “Ballad of Sweeny Todd,” the musical’s opening number that is unused in the film, into a propulsive march that is memorable and keeps the pacing up.

That decision not to utilise the sung version of the Ballad is a striking one right off the bat, given that it is undeniably the main and best-known melody of the entire show. But Burton was right to do so, recognising that inviting the audience to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” when they’re already there would be a waste of time. It was a bold decision for a musical that would already struggle with a lack of name recognition, and demonstrates that Burton was willing to take the risks he needed in order to deliver a good movie, not fan service.

And he succeeds beyond just his usual team of actors and collaborators delivering strong work. Instead of hampering him, the musical structure instead gives Burton easy storyline cohesion and pacing, things that he is not known for. Nothing here drags, and even occasionally approaches flying off the rails with its whiplash energy until a slower song saves it just in time.

Perhaps most surprising, Burton doesn’t try to filter the source material’s plot through his own empathetic lens. This movie is mean and brutal to the very end, which finds Sweeney having his own throat slit while cradling the body of a woman he has slain only to realise it was his long-lost wife. It’s a graphic ending on the stage, to be sure, but seeing it on the big screen really drives this gruesome tale home. No happy resolution here.

A decade on, one can’t help but wonder if Burton gave a little too much in bringing Sweeney to the screen, losing some of his perspective or ability in the process. After this, he would mostly stick to IP films such as the misguided Alice in Wonderland and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, each exhibiting his usual visual style while not working in terms of basic story-telling. Was he simply tired? Was he turned off by the meanness of Sweeney and wanted to go in another direction? Who knows, but the fact that his upcoming project is a live-action telling of Dumbo does not inspire confidence for change.

As it currently stands, Sweeney Todd is arguably the last good film in Burton’s filmography, and definitely the last great one. It finds the iconic director at the top of his form and finally tapping into the darkness that his visuals had always suggested, but stories had avoided. His hollow movies that followed would only serve to highlight its accomplishments, and makes one wonder what his output would be like now if he had continued down the path of darker films instead of Disney ones. My mother actually sat through the entirety of Sweeney with me one random night, and for once I agreed with her. Yes, Mum, that movie was dark. And it was glorious.

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