Had Baz Luhrmann directed, we might've had something sensational. Instead, with fauxteur Tim Burton at the helm, Sweeney Todd is a makeup-caked dirge, an Edward Gorey strip come to life, the type of musical a depressed and/or homicidal high-schooler might enjoy. Critics are reacting favorably not because of Burton's interpretation, but because of the baseline strength of the material. The story and score are magnificent even when communicated without a sense of fun or humor. The film occasionally flirts with fun, but in the end it's a drag instead of a thrill, a downer instead of a throttled, heart-pounding ascent to madness.
Yet it's neither disaster nor sacrilege, even though I was expecting both as soon as the opening credits played (they mimic those of Burton's Willy Wonka, with blood substituting for liquid chocolate). Sondheim's score — arranged faithfully by the man himself and not Danny Elfman, thank goodness — sounds fantastic in a surround-sound setting. And screenwriter John Logan did not try to sweeten the ending nor dial down the volume of bloodletting. This is a far grislier Sweeney than you'd ever see onstage, and I applaud Burton's attempt to fully realize the Grand Guignol-ish aspect of the story.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: No one in this film can sing, and much of Sondheim's notes and words are either thinned (in Johnny Depp's case), swallowed (in Helena Bonham Carter's) or raped (in the case of a timid Sacha Baron Cohen, who has no idea what to do with the work's most patently entertaining role).
Given his youthfulness and the fact that he refined his generic English accent by playing a pirate, Depp's performance was sabotaged from the start. Sweeney is supposed to be an older, grizzled, angry man, not a depressed dullard suffering from an acute case of ennui. Anthony Lane hits the nail on the head: "Depp’s Sweeney comes across as one more mournful Burton wacko. His singing gives off the Cockney yowl of someone who has listened to too much early Bowie, and his ivory-pale face is crowned by a stiff black mane with a white blaze in it. If you had sat Susan Sontag down and broken the news that not everyone in New York reads Hegel, you would have got the same effect."
That's some funny shit, and correct. "Early Bowie" is a good description. Depp sounds like the frontman of an indie band that needs louder music to mask his lack of vocal refinement. There's a fine line between re-imagination and confusion, although Depp's Sweeney is 1,000 times better than his Willy Wonka. As for Carter, she seems to have a passing interest in the material. This lackluster comes to a head during the "A Little Priest" number, which is a showstopping climax onstage but here plays like a half-baked segue. I've said it once and I'll say it again: I would've killed to have had Russell Crowe and Emma Thompson in these roles, with Luhrmann directing. Watch the clip below. I can't even listen to Carter sing. It's like she's sucking in air instead of expelling it.
Why Luhrmann? For his energy. For his flair for the dramatic. For his understanding of how a movie musical needs to move and look in order to be successful. Watch this and imagine how his vision might've transformed and elevated Sweeney:
Burton and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski create a rhythm that is unimaginative and often static — as if they were too preoccupied by the set decoration, costuming, makeup and performances to worry about the film's pacing. A musical needs to sing out. This one whistles a bit. "A Little Priest" is evidence of this, as is the staging of "Not While I'm Around," which, ironically, is much too staged and inert. And "Pretty Women" should've turned into the most suspenseful movie scene of the year. The suspense is built in musically (God, those strings), but Burton isn't savvy enough to harvest it on celluloid. The result is rote, satisfactory, even elementary.
There are things to admire (love Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford), but they are canceled and trumped by what is lazy or uninspired. Suffice to say: The uninitiated will revel in Burton's Sweeney Todd. They will be exposed to Sondheim's virtuosity and its marriage to stylized gore and they will react gleefully. The film is a breath of fresh air if you're aware of it only as a new and original creation rather than a variation on a theme. But for the Sondheim superfan, I think perhaps we were hoping for more than a breath of fresh air. I wanted my breath taken away.