While I have never understood the fascination with continuing to remake the bizarre story of
demonic barber Sweeney Todd, I have to admit that when I saw the dazzling, completely innovative spectacle of the Tony winning Broadway revival of ‘Sweeney Todd” in 2005, it had a powerful impact on me as a Christian writer and artist. The experience was something akin to watching an extraordinary impressionistic painting come to life (yes, I realize that is actually the plot of another Sondheim musical entirely), even while I still felt the twisted nature of the story never paid off as some epic tragedy, moral fable, or even edgy, satirical social commentary.
Not to my surprise, my reaction to Tim Burton’s big screen adaptation was pretty much the same reaction I had to the stage version: The movie is artistically impressive, but dramatically flimsy. So while the critics continue to gush about the bloody spectacle of this dark musical, I can only recommend it to the die-hard Burton/ Depp fans and to those with an affinity for anything gothic.
The film version of Sweeney’s vengeful descent into murder and mayhem sticks rather closely to the stage version (however, theater geeks like me will be severely disappointed that key musical numbers are missing). The film opens in a dark and dreary London where Sweeney Todd (Depp)–his real name is actually Benjamin Barker–has returned from Australia after being wrongfully prisoned by an evil judge (Alan Rickman) who rapes and murders Sweeney’s wife. Upon his return, Sweeney discovers his daughter, Johanna, has been raised by the judge as a beautiful recluse. Determined to right these horrendous wrongs, Sweeney opens a barber shop right above the worst piemaker in all of London, Mrs. Lovett ( Helena Bonham-Carter). His plan? To murder the judge while giving him a very close shave.
Mixed in with a string of murders by the blood-thirsty Sweeney (assisted by the wacky Mrs. Lovett) is a love story as a young man falls in love with Johanna and they try to flee the violent melodrama that surrounds them.
Burton outdoes himself with lavish touches of color against grey tones and over-the-top musical numbers that are reminiscent of “Moulin Rouge” – yet far creepier. Depp and Bonham-Carter are adequate to their parts, but nothing spectacular, as they are overshown by the elaborate staging and design. It’s also rather difficult, in spite of the injustice done to Sweeney, to feel empathy for him as others are killed senselessly.
Despite — or actually because of — the flaws of the story, “Sweeney” does continue to inspire me in a contrary sort of way. To me, “Sweeney” is a symbolic gauntlet of sorts to those interested in creating or discussing redemptive art in film. It is a glittering reminder that all of the special effects and colorful artistic strokes don’t add up to much if the storytelling does nothing to address the spiritual void within.