Tim Burton is a visionary director. Looking at his body of work from the late 1980s through today, one gets a clear sense of his dark, humorous world view. Burton's films are filled with a sense of the fantastic, the supernatural, and the wondrous. The look of every frame of a Burton film feels as though it has been considered; everything is just where he wanted it to be, the light is perfect, and the colors exact (even if they have to be made exact in post). Unfortunately, there are times when one watches a Burton movie that it feels as though he has sacrificed story for look. Such is the case with the recently released to Blu-ray Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
Starring frequent Burton collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the film has a screenplay by John Logan, working from the musical written by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (though the story didn't originate there — it has been adapted from a series of penny dreadfuls numerous times – or possibly some real life incidents, depending on whom you believe). Depp stars as Todd – real name Benjamin Barker – who has recently returned from Australia, where he spent years due to trumped-up legal charges. Todd now longs to get revenge on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the man who took away his life and his love, his wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly).
Upon returning to England, Todd learns from the woman currently living and working out of Todd's old home, Mrs. Lovett (Carter), that Lucy is dead and that Turpin is holding Todd's daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener). Todd, already slightly bent from his time in Australia and his missing his wife and child, quickly loses his tenuous grasp of societal conventions upon learning what has happened to his family. He once again takes up his former profession, that of a barber, but rather than simply providing a close shave, he begins to murder those who sit in his chair. Disposing of the bodies is the wonderful Mrs. Lovett, who grinds them up and puts them in her meat pies.
Awfully macabre stuff, but the musical, and to a lesser extent the film, still managed to find the humanity in Todd, casting him not as a repugnant murderer, but as a poor family man who has been tormented past the point of no return. Both the film and the musical also manage, though it may seem odd, to find humor in the goings-on. Mrs. Lovett's pies and machinations as well as Todd's rival Pirelli (played here by Sacha Baron Cohen) make what could be an absurdly dark tale into something slightly, but only slightly in the film, more lighthearted.
The recent Broadway revival of the musical, which started Michael Cerveris as Todd and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, was the immediate impetus for bringing forth a movie adaptation (though Burton had been toying with the idea for years). The musical was a pared down affair, with all of the actors and actresses playing instruments. It was quite the task, and it is easily understandable why Burton opted to not do such an interpretation of the work.
Perhaps, however, the main reason this film fails to work is its star, Johnny Depp. Depp has, in recent years, become a true box office star and has managed to move from commercial fare such as the Pirates of the Caribbean films to more art house movies like Finding Neverland with ease. Depp is, unarguably, a wonderful actor and usually a pleasure to watch on screen. However, as Sweeney Todd makes all too clear, he can't sing. Watching him attempt to do so during the film's nearly two hour runtime constantly reinforces that sad fact and makes one question why Burton chose him for the role. Some of the behind the scenes featurettes focus both on Depp's singing efforts and the collaboration in general, and all too often they seem like a case of “the lady doth protest too much,” with Burton and producer Richard D. Zanuck talking about their initial trepidation over Depp singing which turned into pure bliss once they heard him. Only Depp acknowledges that perhaps, just perhaps, he is not up to the task.
Carter, however, is a joy to watch; she adds an incredible amount of humor and depth to the role. The rest of the cast too are up to their task, particularly Rickman who is, at turns, both befuddled and strong-minded as Judge Turpin. Equally fun to watch is Timothy Spall as Beadle, who is something of a villainous right-hand man to Turpin.
Unfortunately, with the lead being such a let down, little can be done to bolster the rest of the piece. Burton does try his best however, and the film, particularly in Blu-ray, looks visually stunning. Done mainly in dark hues (save the incredibly red splatters of blood), the film fits perfectly into the Burton pantheon. The film vividly depicts a small little corner of London, England. The set design, green screen work, and general mise en scène is not only fully realized, but appears spectacular on Blu-ray.
The extras included on the Blu-ray are nearly all done in HD, and explore not just behind-the-scenes goings-on for this particular version of the Todd story, but its antecedents as well. Depp, Burton, Zanuck, Carter, and others all get screen time as they discuss their experiences making the film. One of the more interesting featurettes is “Sweeney's London” which is a look at the historical time in London when the story takes place. It examines the different classes of people that lived in the city and the direction of society as a whole. As interesting as the background is, as is the case with so many featurettes on DVDs and Blu-ray, it (and the rest of the featurettes present) is certainly not worth purchasing the disc for.
In the end, there is much to like about Tim Burton's version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The tale, the music, the design, and direction are all wonderful. It is a fully realized motion picture. It did, however, need someone who could sing in the lead. Even in this role, Depp exudes charisma and charm, but that's not quite enough to carry a musical lead.