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The Burton Binge: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”

by on September 18, 2012
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Each Sunday with “The Burton Binge,” Sam Watermeier will look back at one of Tim Burton’s films, ultimately tracing the return to the auteur’s roots with the October 5 release of “Frankenweenie,” an animated adaptation of Burton’s first live-action short film. 

Sweeney Todd is a Tim Burton character if there ever was one.

With a lightning-white streak of hair and an equally pale face, he is a whimsical projection of pain. Bearing sorrow and cold, sharp hands, he is like Batman mixed with Edward Scissorhands.

He is also a man Burton’s muse Johnny Depp seems born to portray.

Oddly enough, “Sweeney Todd” is not a pure Burton/Depp creation but an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 stage musical.

Although stylistically and thematically similar to Burton’s other films, it revolves around a much different character arc.

After he’s wrongly imprisoned and stripped of his family, the gentle barber wreaks havoc on the streets of London, slitting men’s throats and selling their bodies to an equally tattered meat-pie maker (Helena Bonham Carter).

In Depp’s hands, Sweeney is as scary as he is tragic — like a classic Universal monster. His singing is also darkly beautiful, more guttural than rehearsed.

Needless to say, Sweeney is not a gentle soul like Pee-wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. Nor is the film a playfully dark fantasy. It’s easily Burton’s grimmest work.

While his other films have a crude, childlike aesthetic, this one has a sweeping visual gravitas. Each frame has a rich, velvety texture — undoubtedly composed by Burton to show his love for the 1979 stage musical, which he saw several times as a Cal Arts student in London in 1980 (“Tim Burton’s Slasher Movie”).

One of Burton’s more organic worlds of the last few years, you can practically feel the soot of the London setting. However, the film is not merely a visual feast. It’s a grand tragedy of chamber-drama intimacy. As loud and lavish as this movie could have been, Burton boldly chooses to put stronger emphasis on the quiet moments. The most powerful scenes are those of Sweeney alone, dully lit by the stormy sky outside his rooftop barber shop, waiting for revenge with both rage and sorrow.

Unfortunately, Sweeney doesn’t have much chemistry with anything other than violence and his scarred past. Therefore, his emotionally detached exchanges with the other characters become a bit taxing and tiresome. The same statement applies to the film overall. It is so concerned with physical and emotional anguish that it forgets to have fun when it has the chance. For instance, it seems strange how nonchalantly the film handles the absurdist subplot involving human meat pies. Then again, I’m not familiar with the tone and execution of the original musical.

Overall, this is one of Burton’s better films of the last decade — and certainly one of his more exciting collaborations with Depp. (Who knew the man could sing?) In the end, though, the film doesn’t have the staying power of “Ed Wood” or “Edward Scissorhands.” It’s an impressive achievement but not an entirely involving one. Fortunately, style doesn’t completely triumph over substance here, but it comes as dangerously close as a shave from Mr. Todd.

Stay tuned this week, as I will tumble down the rabbit hole with Burton and “Alice in Wonderland.”