On a Grimmer Note

Posted December 20, 2007 in Film

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s first creation was Edward Scissorhands, a monochromatically dressed moptop hairstylist who was handy with a blade but tender under his sharp steel. He didn’t ask to be a monster; he was made into one, and the real villain was society. With Sweeney Todd, they’ve flipped the script to give us a monochromatically dressed moptop beard stylist with serious blade skills and a heart of cold metal. He doesn’t cry when he draws blood, he glances away bored as his slashed throat victims burble and flail in his barber chair. And where Scissorhands was bright with eye-popping pastels that took on a sordid sheen, like a macaroon with a roach baked inside, the world in Sweeney has no such subtext: it’s black, black, and gray, except for when the screen floods red with blood.  

But in the best stagings of Stephen Sondheim’s miserable musical, the enemy is still Victorian London, a classist, hopeless mire of haves and have-nots that’s just embraced Social Darwinism as a get-out-of-guilt-free card. The most loathsome of the lot is Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), an R. Kelly deviant with political connections, who pursues and rapes kindly barber Benjamin Barker’s pretty blonde wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly). But instead of immediate vengeance, Barker gets a 15 year exile to an Australian prison on false charges, which allows his wrath time to condense into a deadly venom that boils over when his old neighbor, the pie baker Mrs. Lovett, (naughty, bosomy Helena Bonham Carter) tells him that a distraught Lucy poisoned herself with arsenic and his infant daughter, now a teenager (Jayne Wisener), was adopted by the Judge himself, who’s less interested in her well-being then in checking his watch until she’s of legal age. 

Burton’s Sweeney gives lip service to the poor in sarcastic songs like “No Place Like London,” to make us understand that times are so financially tough that making pies out of human meat is just good business. “For what’s the sound of the world out there/Those crunching noises pervading the air/It’s man devouring man, my dear/And who are we to deny it in here?” sing the musically-capable Depp and Carter in the viciously comic duet “A Little Priest.” But screenwriter John Logan is less interested in Sondheim’s subtexual politics than in a portrait of a man so consumed with hatred that it’s burned away his personality and conscience. Which mean the eponymous killer barber with his stoic frown is usually the most boring person on stage, and Depp is no exception. (Though Burton is sometimes aware enough of the story’s flaw to poke fun of it in Mrs. Lovett’s wistfully romantic number “By the Sea,” where her fantasy of beachside wedded bliss with the expressionless lug plopped by her side in the sand look like an extended weekend with Bernie.) 

For the first hour, it’s hard to connect to Sweeney Todd—a problem that is less about the tale or Sondheim’s clever lyrics and twisted, beautifully fractured melodies, and more about Burton himself. He’s in the canon of filmmakers who suffer under high expectations, and at this post- Planet of the Apes, post-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory creative nadir, it’s almost impossible to give into another one of his intricate but empty dioramas that invest more in set design than film. But halfway through Sweeney, I reluctantly found myself opening back up to Burton like he was an abusive ex-boyfriend who just might have come around. And part of it is this film feels like the first time in a decade he’s sublimated his aesthetic vision to the story. (Well, mostly, though he’s also wrecked our own eyesight by making us squint through murky shadows in a London where no one seems to own more than two candles.) Yet his Sweeney is so unrelentingly grim, so thoroughly and decisively despairing of any human good that might dare to exist, that it leaves you feeling bludgeoned but cathartically grateful towards a film that resolved it was going to take your emotions to the gutters and kick them into the filth. 


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