It’s a surprise to a lot of folks when I say that I’m not the biggest fan of Tim Burton. I don’t dislike him as a director but I think most of his film jaunts are mostly style over substance. I think Nightmare Before Christmas is fine but as someone who worked in a Hot Topic, I find it intensely overrated. And don’t get me started on his current run with the Alice in Wonderland franchise…but on a whole, I don’t think he’s bad or good. He’s perfectly serviceable and I understand that to the niche he proudly represents: his work is important.
That changed however, when I first saw Sweeney Todd. This movie came out when I was in high school and at peak edgelord. And really, at first the movie was way too violent for me. But in my later years, I’ve come to appreciate the soundtrack, the visuals and more. But this movie does have flaws and not just the lead actor (we’ll get to that…) but despite all of those flaws, here are the reasons I still love Sweeney Todd.
As a musical, Sweeney Todd has a tone problem. The musical centers around the eponymous Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker and known barber) and his return back to vaguely Victorian London. Todd is a barber and was sent away by the evil Judge Turpin so the bad bad judge could seize Mr. Todd’s wife and family. Todd returns to find an odd woman living in his house and occupying his shop that he used to own. Her name is Mrs. Lovett and she’s a strange lady with poor cooking skills who despite those factors, still owns a pie shop. Together they devise a long-con plan to murder Judge Turpin after Mr. Todd discovers in his time away that Turpin had his wife killed and is holding his daughter hostage. Murder adventures ensure and the musical ends in a bloodbath of gore, puns and pie.
Most of the stage productions before the Burton version have a difficult problem of balancing the humor written into the screenplay and the immense gore that comes with a blood-thirsty barber and his pie-making lady friend. And oftentimes the stage show ends up choosing humor over drama and that’s difficult to handle a joke about a woman’s bust comes after an intensely bloody scene.
The movie does a better job of handling that. Burton’s distinct style manages the dark themes of a murder-barber. The movie is dark, brooding, mechanical and maze-like in its depiction of London. The overbearing score feels more at home in the dank, twisted London of a Burton movie.
The casting of the film is full of Burton standbys and they are all perfect in the film. Helena Bonham Carter is compelling, dead-eyed and brilliant. Alan Rickman, the treasure he was, is just fantastic and…well, let’s jump this shark early.
Johnny Depp is a garbage human. He’s a horrible human being and not just for the allegations (which I believe) that have surfaced. He’s a lazy actor now and what I assume is the human embodiment of Hollywood excess. We now have a difficult media environment where the sins of the past affect the things we loved now. We all have tough choices to make regarding the properties we love. And truthfully, I struggle with this as I struggle with many other beloved properties. And I respect anyone who is uncomfortable with me even mentioning Depp as a human person.
That unfortunately does not take away all of the things I loved about his performance in this film. He’s apathetic, listless and dammit almost asexual. Some of my favorite parts are the fact that he seems to be almost entirely disinterested in Carter. Depp plays Todd as a man still wholly devoted to his wife and thus is almost put off by Mrs. Lovett.
In By the Sea, you get to witness a man who is broken but has to admit he somewhat owes the woman he is attached to. You see a mad, obsessive woman in love and a man who realistically would rather be anywhere else but with her.
And he is half of one of my favorite scene studies of all time. Pretty Women is a delicate dance of rising tension, intense chemistry between two actors and in each escalating moment of tension, you feel as though you are in the room with Depp and Rickman.
They both disappear into the role and end up providing form to a song that is sometimes played for laughs. If you ever want to study how to properly film or depict tension: this scene, over and over again.
Speaking of chemistry, Depp’s relationship with Carter in the film is fascinating to me. It’s the most platonic I’ve seen in a depiction of Sweeney Todd. We see a mostly one-sided obsession and a broken man who is willing to appease the woman who is abundantly wanting to give him the time of day. And in the moments where there is more tension are wonderful.
A Little Priest is blocked, framed and shot beautifully and paced wonderfully. And I love that, if there is any relationship between Todd and Lovett, that it’s platonic. They have a respect for each other, even if it’s a twisted one.
Aside from Depp, this film does have other issues. It’s way too long for a movie. As a musical, with breaks,the length is perfectly fine. As a movie, it’s a bit of a slog that gets weighed down around the middle. You’ll notice I’ve ignored literally half the cast because Johanna is a wet dishrag. She is most of the versions of the musical but the movie makes it even worse. Her little boyfriend is also a wet dishrag and I can’t stand him. Sasha Baron Cohen irked me in this movie even though he wasn’t in the film for long. He’s fine for the role but I was not at all sad when a horrible death befell him. Additionally, the movie is gory as hell. While stage show versions vary depending on the actor and producer and director, the movie version earns its R-rating. I’ve seen less blood in Gladiator.
And the movie, due to its desire to be more serious, also have a serious framing problem. I’m a cosplayer. I see tons of folks saying that Todd and Lovett are Harley Quinn and Joker-like “relationship goals” and that’s troubling. During the musical, most adaptations play more with humor so their outrageous behavior made it easier to see them as foppish and silly albeit terrifying serial killers. The movie plays their arc as dead serious and important and almost romantic and people flock to that. And that’s scary. There’s a certain easy to relate to nihilism that oozes from A Little Priest and No Place Like London. Many of us have felt like this. Many of us have felt like we are owed something because the world is cruel but that just isn’t the case. But that’s not how reality works and many, (younger me included) romanticize Sweeney Todd as a tragic Jesus-like figure rather than the murderer he is. Yes, tragedy befell him. That does not give him the right to seek vigilante murder-justice out on the streets of London yet along to let his partner-close friend turn folks into pies. Forcing cannibalism on people is not a fair penance for an unfortunate circumstance.
Now, before we get too lost, I don’t want to ignore Burton’s distinct…style, let’s call it. Normally all those things play against him. He’s a surprisingly safe director. Hence why he sticks with the same trio of actors in almost every movie and almost the exact same themes. But here, as mentioned before, it does work. A cast very comfortable with their roles, so comfortable in fact, that many of them have been playing the same role now for years.
Sweeney Todd as a movie ages better for some more than others. For me, the movie aged better as I grew older and could more easily respect the themes. Those themes include ones that I find interesting in other beloved pieces of media. The film also features humans that are flawed but there is occasionally light in a person even after they have dealt with the slings and arrows that are a flawed past. And the most important lesson, horrible people are not to be rewarded. There is no redemption for Mr. Todd, Mrs. Lovett or Judge Turpin. They all die. They all earn their horrible deaths. There is no romance at the end. And that particular nihilism, vengeance and darkness may just be what makes the film so great.