A Tale of Two Sweeney Todds
By Kristin Battestella
Despite liking musicals new and old as well as films with a touch of the macabre, I wasn’t too interested in Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street amid it’s theatrical hype. However, when I discovered there was also a lesser known, purely dramatic version of our favorite homicidal barber starring Ray Winstone, well then I had to take a peak at both!
Returning to England after being wrongfully imprisoned by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), Benjamin Barker becomes Sweeney Todd (Depp) and resumes his barbering business with the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s meat pie shop is struggling below the cuttery. Todd plots to save his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) from Turpin’s lustful household with the help of her admirer Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower)- but his vengeance begins with slitting the throats of his customers and then disposing of the bodies in Mrs. Lovett’s now tasty pies.
Well, the macabre is certainly an integral part of Sweeney Todd. While Stephen Sondheim’s (Dick Tracy, West Side Story) 1979 musical production stems from Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, the musical bend must indeed work best on the stage, for director Burton’s (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) mishmash of song and blood does not work cinematically. Sweeney Todd has no choreography or complex dance numbers as we would expect in a musical-no matter what the subject matter. Although I have to say dancing would have been even worse, nevertheless we expect more than fast zooming CGI of London to accompany the big musical crescendos. That’s your action, CGI? Why make the effort to have realistic music and lyrics if it’s going to be a so obviously fake landscape? All the musical big booms happen when people are standing still, and the notes they’re holding aren’t so big anyway. What’s to catch and awe the audience?
I’m in the minority for disliking Sweeney Todd, I know, and it’s a shame for the drama is quite fine. The period and despair harkens to a Dickensian feel. Fate and story collide with coincidence and irony. It’s the uneven distribution of song and seriousness that hampers the true dramatic development-as proven by the nearly song free final half hour. Sweeney Todd’s conclusion is its finest hour, but you have to get through all the bad singing to get to it! The cockney accents don’t seem fit for the singing, and truthfully, the leads don’t sing that well.
The split personality of Sweeney Todd also hurts the performances. I get the feeling this film is meant to be a black comedy. However, as bizarre, weird, and macabre as the visuals and lyrics are; the musical styles and singing montages are still too happy for the twisted story. What are we supposed to feel while Todd is singing the ballad for his lost daughter Joanna whilst he’s killing innocent customers at his barbery? It’s just too weird for a truly dramatic, emotional connection. Thankfully, Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean, From Hell, The Ninth Gate) is worthy outside of the singing and bizarrity. His skill, depth, and range of emotion from the maniacal murderer to the tragic husband and father are all there. Nevertheless, the arrangement of Sweeney Todd never lets us forget that ‘OMG! It’s Jack Sparrow Singing! in a Freaky dark musical directed by Tim Burton!’
Despite my complaints, the sadistic murders and seriously kinky drama here is wonderful. If you’re looking for the seriousness of Sweeney Todd, the long spaces without music about the middle of the picture are delightful. But of course, the bipolar style rears its ugly head again, making the quiet scenes seem at odds with the musically laden opening. When Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) gets his tune, you suddenly realize how ridiculous it is for this horror movie to be a musical. Alan fricking Snape badass Rickman singing while laid back in a barber’s chair with a deadly blade to his throat. It’s not Jailhouse Rock I’ll tell you that!
The talented support also only has few and far between moments. Thankfully, Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Auf Wiedersehen Pet) and a little too over the top Sasha Baron Cohen (Borat) make the most of their time. Of course, I haven’t forgotten Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View, The Wings of the Dove) as Mrs. Lovett. The oft-nominated star and quirky companion of Burton is exceptional dramatically-but she’s annoying as hell vocally and visually. Again, the feeling that she only got the part because she and her husband are kind of freaky and macabre is intensified by her weak singing and goofy look. Sadly, this trumps her performance. If her Bellatrix in Harry Potter got this kind of screen time in that franchise, however, I would be quite happy.
Fortunately, I have more praise for the BBC’s 2006 production of Sweeney Todd. This purely dramatic edition directed by Dave Moore (Merlin, The Forsyte Saga, Peak Practice) didn’t get nearly as much press as its flashy successor, and honestly I don’t know why. After serving twenty years in prison due to the crimes of his father, Sweeney Todd (Winstone) curbs his quiet, good-natured barbering and surgeoning whilst slitting the throats of the wicked jailers and street urchins who enter his barbery. After befriending and attempting to romance the widowed Mrs. Lovett (Essie Davis), Todd helps her set up a new meat pie business beneath his shop. From above, he is able to observe her suitors, dispense of them quickly, and donate fresh meat towards her juicy pies.
Ray Winstone (Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Departed, King Arthur, Beowulf) may not be as well known or beloved in America as Johnny Depp is, and it’s a damn shame. His subtle, yet sinister and kindhearted Todd is a lovely and somber performance. He dispenses justice by killing those who harm women and pain children whilst also healing kind hearted youths and performing- oxymoron as it is- kindly and comforting abortions. The examination of the sinister mixed with the faithful doctoring is slower than the spectacle of Burton’s presentation. The viewer has to pay attention to the silent ruthlessness of a man who kills because of the cynical hell on earth he witnesses, yet also seeks to make people happy where he can. Winstone is much quieter, but no less charming in his portrayal-and he does it with pure acting, not stressful singing. He’s not considered a hottie or such to the American girlie girl teens like Depp, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winstone in his Sweeney Todd. His barber kills Mrs. Lovett’s lovers and then presents their meat to her for cooking in her steak pies! It’s not a quirky sing a long duet here, just all disturbed Sweeney. In one twisted moment, he allows his adorable apprentice Tobias (Ben Walker, The Golden Compass) to eat one of the nefarious pies before sending him away with five guineas towards a better life. This Sweeney is much more complex than Depp’s strained appeal trying to charm the masses.
Essie Davis’ (Australia, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions) turn as Mrs. Lovett is equal to Winstone in her somewhat more honest portrayal than Helena Bonham Carter’s crushing and happy to kill performance. Here, Lovett is beaten by her husband and is mostly uninvolved in Todd’s debauchery, yet she’s a bit kinky and loose- trouble that comes back to haunt her and change her baking business. It’s quite a pair to observe here. Todd loves Mrs. Lovett from afar and cares for her with as equal devotion as his deadly barbery. It’s more twisted than Bonnie and Clyde but no less enjoyable to watch. David Bradley (Hot Fuzz, another one of the Potter folk) is also delightfully dirty and creepy as the lecherous and blackmailing Father who abandoned Todd to prison. David Warner (Doctor Who, Hornblower, Titanic) and Tom Hardy (RocknRolla, Layer Cake) are also period piece fine as the investigator and his idealistic lieutenant closing in on Todd.
More focus is spent on the messy, Old World mix of barber skills and medical surgery in our 2006 version. Where Depp and Burton’s interpretation can be for the macabre youthful viewer, this one is not for kiddies or the faint of heart. The medical gore is more pronounced, and a few questionable sex scenes put more fuel on Sweeney Todd’s fire. A Todd who has horrid prison stories and some subsequent impotence and jealousy is far more interesting to watch as a killer than an attempt at a heartwarming but deadly family man barber. The nudity and deaths are not darkly comical by any means. However, the candlelit and natural daylight colors in this smaller television production are in some ways more pleasing to the eye than all the black, garish CGI in the musical edition. The wardrobe is perfectly colonial, too, not steampunk. I adore this straightly dramatic, thrilling, and artful production more compared to the finely decrepit costumes and art decoration from Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The musical’s positive values are simply too tainted by the over use of CGI. Perhaps Burton’s version was so popular not for its goth look and dramatic performances, but simply because it was achieved. You can have highbrow actors in a not all warm and fuzzy musical, who knew? Well, anyone who’s been following musicals knew. Sweeney Todd seems almost like a capitalistic gimmick; a who you know outside Hollywood but Hollywood approved combination of Moulin Rouge and Saw! The fine story, emotion, and drama need not such sensationalism. The 2006 edition is proof of this.
I used to like Burton’s subtle and creepy early work, and a long time ago, I did have a Depp phase- 21 Jump Street and Cry Baby, anyone? More and more, however, I feel this working pair is far too similar to Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe-too full of themselves and the extremes of what they are doing to the point of parodying themselves and banking on a niche audience always going to see anything with their names attached. I had high hopes for the Burton and Depp collaboration for a big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows. They own the rights to the series now and are of the macabre bend to do such a gothic classic. However, on the one hand, they are too busy with every other project to take the time in getting to Dark Shadows; and secondly, if this is how they are going to do, no thanks.
Well! While we wait for all that, there’s plenty here for both Burton and Depp fans-and Winstone lovers- to enjoy. Goth fans and lovers of quirky off beat film can enjoy Depp’s musical, and appreciators of suspense and Brit thrillers can keep hold of the dramatic 2006 Sweeney Todd. Both can be found for purchase affordably or through renting means. I must say, however, that my rented blu-ray of the 2007 musical froze like hell, but I suppose all the fast paced visuals are better served on blu-ray. The 2006 DVD is billed as a Director’s Cut, but there are no subtitles or any thing else with this bare bones edition- of course, there were plenty of treats with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Todd enthusiast will delight in all that, but I fear mainstream audiences are a little left in the cold and thus missing out on a finely twisted tale. Non-musical fan won’t bother with Depp’s take nor would non-fans of British period piece flicks bother with Winstone’s show. Ideally, the best take would be the happy medium-no songs and more approachability; but if I must choose, I choose Winstone!
View, compare, or choose your close shave tonight-and be thankful to the makers of Gillette and Lady Bic!