Burton Returns

'Sweeney Todd' is Tim Burton's best film in years.

Are people ready for opera again? The more successful musical films of the recent years have concentrated on being bright, colorful affairs that always try to justify their musical roots. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd doesn’t do that. Burton takes Stephen Sondheim’s dark, operatic musical and crafts a film that bucks the musical trend and challenges the sensibilities of modern audiences. In doing so, Sweeney Todd is Burton’s best film in years.

Based on the Stephen Sondheim musical (which in turn was based on an old English story), the film follows Sweeney Todd, an exiled barber who has returned to London to take revenge upon the man who destroyed his life and stole his family away from him. Todd teams up with Mrs. Lovett, a pie-maker completely enamored with him, and they hatch a scheme that leads them on a path of murder and trickery from which there is no return.

This is a film that asks a lot from its audience. A Sondheim musical isn’t exactly the easiest thing to get into: the music will not be particularly accessible, and the songs will not be catchy little tunes that you’ll find yourself singing weeks after seeing the movie. It’s really a lot closer to opera than our current idea of musical theater. The story is dark, and may leave some people uncomfortable. And overall, there is a sense of theatricality that may turn off some.

But to turn a phrase, from whom much is asked, much more is returned. This is a brilliant film by all accounts, taking the rich darkness of the tale and the music and splaying it out on screen. There is a palpable synergy between the music and the way the film looks and feels, and it’s just pitch perfect all the way through. There is a strange sense of restraint to the direction: as crazy and wild as the film is, it feels like Burton could’ve gone much louder, and much more ridiculous with everything, but he doesn’t. He forsakes the often cartoony slant he takes in many of his films and keeps it cinematically grim. He sets an appropriate tone and sticks with it throughout, thereby creating a completely watchable experience.

This is a tale of the macabre, and there must have been a lot of temptation to just go all-out with it. But the violence here is just punctuation. It is what breaks up the sheer grayness of the characters’ lives, shedding a lovely shade of crimson on their monochrome existence. The look of the film reflects that way of thinking, and this stylized world is an absolute delight to watch. The powerful score makes it a complete sensory experience.

Theater fans were understandably wary of the leads actors, who aren’t known for their singing. But really, Johnny Depp does a fine job. His voice isn’t the most powerful, but it gets the job done. Once we’re past that concern, we’re left with his acting, which is impeccable. It is amazing how much he can get across, even with a single expression. Helena Bonham Carter has even more issues with the singing, but again, it is the acting that transcends whatever limitations she has. She is a powerhouse in this film, and it is her performance that will probably connect the most with the audience. The supporting cast, composed of consistently great performers like Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen, contribute greatly as well.

It is almost difficult to recommend Sweeney Todd to people, knowing full well that musicals aren’t for everyone, and that the macabre isn’t for everyone. A film combining both must cater to an even smaller audience, but if one keeps an open mind, it is hard to argue against the sheer quality of this film. Sweeney Todd has always been a compelling tale, and Burton has matched it with some truly excellent filmmaking and fantastic performances from a tremendous cast. Sweeney Todd is highly recommended.

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