Tonight, I decided to finally watch Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. To be frank, people who are raving over this movie either have never seen the original musical (especially the 1982 version starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett) or did not truly appreciate it. I watched the Tim Burton movie tonight and, while I can certainly appreciate that everyone in it were great actors and the movie had some compelling parts, I can say that it came nowhere near to the musical which inspired me when I watched it live at Mansfield University (no, that production did not star Angela Lansbury, sadly) or the 1982 stage performance on DVD since.
I think that the least offensive change I noted was Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Mrs. Lovett . Carter transformed the familiar senile character with no sense of right or wrong to a more aware and somewhat dark cynic of a woman. This made the character more aware of what was going around, forcing who to react to it on some more serious level than the frivolity of a more spacy baker. I also think this hurt the sense of utter and mindless devotion to the vengeful barber that is so key to the character. But if this had been the worst of the changes, I concede that it might have actually worked.
I think the greatest offense in the movie was Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Sweeney Todd. Todd is an excellent actor and while many of his lines were well developed, I felt that overall, he played the character poorly. For starters, it was difficult to believe that the man on the screen had just spent fifteen years of a life sentence in Australia only to make a harrowing escape, get lost at sea, and finally rescued by sheer luck. I would expect a man who has gone through such a rough life to look far more haggard.
This was further complicated by the fact that Depp played a far more brooding Todd rather than a man who was becoming completely consumed by grief and a compulsive lust for vengeance. While he showed some excellent sparks of anger (the scene where he tossed Mrs. Lovett into the fire was phenomenal, I grant you), he more often seemed to be more prepared to write emo poetry than explode in murderous fury.
Burton’s decision to cut the chorus and any number they would do from the movie entirely also hurt the production over all, in my opinion. The chorus plays an important part in the musical in that its numbers help to build up the atmosphere of intensity and fury. Without that aid, this movie did not crescendo well into the final climax, proving the point of the final words of the musical (which again, were cut from the movie):
To seek revenge may lead to hell,
But everyone does it, though seldom as well
As Sweeny, Sweeny Todd
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
And that brings me to the crux of my problem with this film. Sweeney Todd is not just a musical with a grim plotline. It is a morality play demonstrating in frightening detail the dangers of becoming enthralled by thoughts of vengeance. The main character serves as an example of how one bent on revenge will become so consumed by the quest and the negative emotions involved that one can ultimately destroy everything one holds dear, and ultimately, oneself. In my opinion, while the movie got the grim plotline down, it failed to deliver the ultimate message of the drama with any real force.
I will note, however, that I was pleased with both Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the judge and Ed Sanders’s performance as Toby. (In all reality, I found the choice to have Toby quietly and quickly slice Todd’s throat and walk away one of the more interesting changes, and I wish the rest of the movie had been done better so I could get a clearer idea of how that adaptation might have worked.) I’d like to also compliment Laura Michelle Kelly on her performance as Lucy, though I’ll note that they cut way too much out of that role for her to truly show her skill at playing what is actually a surprisingly pivotal role in the whole musical.