Top critical review
Sweeney Wimps Out
on October 9, 2011
I've seen Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd three times on DVD (after seeing it once in a movie theater). I say Burton's Sweeney on purpose: this is not what I would consider Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney. Never before this production has Sweeney Todd seemed wispy to me. But wispy seems the principal mode of all Burton's films (working best in Ed Wood and to some extent Corpse Bride, but disastrous in his Batman films). Every production I have seen of Sweeney, including the original Broadway production many times with Angela Lansbury and once with the replacement cast, has been vibrant and bold, not enervated and wan like this film. And removing "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" (even if Sondheim went along with it) takes away the spine of the work. I've seen a production of the work (and this includes the other two DVDs, the production at Circle in the Square, and a wonderful production at the University of Alabama in which stage blood was not used) that seemed so bloodless, in spite of the gallons of fake blood splashed around in this movie as if to try to create some sense of tension or excitement). Always before the characters and the setting have seemed incredibly vivid. In Burton's film, all color is washed out of setting and performance (other than the fake red).
In defense of Helena Bonham Carter, my sense is that her lackluster performance is a result of Burton's conception and direction. She can pull out the necessary stops when required (see her performance in David Fincher's Fight Club, and speaking of Fincher, too bad he didn't direct the film). In The King's Speech she had much more spunk than she did as Mrs. Lovett. And whose idea was it to give Mrs. Lovett signs of second thoughts, of hesitation, of conscience? Mrs. Lovett is a great steamroller of a character who would have stuffed that particular genius in the meat grinder without a sign of remorse. Yes, Johnny Depp is better than acceptable much of the time, but his performance too suffers from being held back.
One of the horrors of the film, its truest horror, is what Burton did to "A Little Priest." On stage the principals are regarding each other, egging the other one on to a serious folie deux. In the film they are looking across the street and commenting on what they see. The song mentions a priest? Show a priest. A grocer? Show a grocer. A Royal Marine? Well, guess what! And then the song simply peters out.
Oh, I could go on, but why bother.
Yes, it is the best "movie" so far made from a Sondheim work. If you've seen the others, you know that this is not high praise. Is it a bore? No. It is simply a B-grade version of one of the great theatrical works of the last century. Is it a triumph? Never.