On His Todd

Sweeney Scissorhands 

So we attended the tale of SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Tim Burton version.

On the whole I liked it. The score has a massive amount of sheer OOMPH, the lyrics are spectacular (if you want dance numbers, just watch those words leap to and fro), and I enjoyed the performances, especially Sacha Baron Cohen and Timothy Spall. I was intrigued to see that Johnny Depp’s vocals boast their own producer…a touch of digital pitch-correction going on there, Fiona suggests.

There are a few unfortunate things about the film, and I’m going to dwell on them, I’m afraid. It’s a testament to the strength of the story and score and acting that the film entertains as well as it does, because these problems could really butcher a lesser film.

1) The Look. I think it’s too murky, and this combines with the C.G. backdrops and the theatrically enclosed narrative to make it rather claustrophobic. This might be OK if it’s your kind of thing, but since films with a very C.G. look — like “300” — tend to feel a little stifling no matter how the filmmakers try to open them out and give them sweep, I’d have awarded points to Burton for breathing some air into this.

(Very dark films sometimes look sharper on DVD than on the big screen — Darius Khondji’s most eye-straining work sometimes has this quality. So Dariusz Wolski’s smeary work here may likewise shine on home vid — the stills look much clearer than the movie did when I saw it. Perversely, Wolski’s lensing of DARK CITY was radiant by comparison.)

thru a glass very darkly indeed

2) The Plot. I don’t know the play but I was sure there had been some kind of ineffectual tampering when we got to the aftermath of the climax. I looked it up on Wikipedia and, although I hadn’t guessed the exact nature of the changes, tinkering had indeed taken place and the ending of the original sounded markedly more effective. I can’t go into this without major spoilers, but it’s largely a structural thing. Burton has never had much story sense, tending to favour image over word and missing the Hitchcockian principle of telling stories with pictures. Burton’s images are often stand-alone tableaux or, at most, gags.


Todd spares his daughter’s life for no convincing reason, and then she disappears from the narrative altogether. In the play, the authorities arrive at the end, obviously alerted by her, so at least there’s a pay-off to her survival. The film also soft-pedals young Tobias’ madness at the end, so that his killing Sweeney isn’t quite credible.)


3) The Squeamishness. This might be an odd thing to charge an 18-Rated musical with, but it seemed to me that the makers were rather shy of the whole cannibalism thing. You wouldn’t know, from the mise-en-scene, that there was anything unusual about the pies all those extras were munching. I can sort of understand Burton wanting to hold back on the horrors of the kitchen until they are discovered by little Tobias — except that doesn’t sound like the sort of narrative concern that would even occur to Timbo. It feels like he’s been told he can have his head with the throat-slitting, but could he please hold back on the old anthropophagy? And since that’s what the whole film’s about, it strikes me as an unfortunate area to ellide. When somebody doesn’t actually want to tell the story they’re telling, it never bodes well.

Sheer Barberism

4) The Momentum. The thrust of the story is maintained fairly well, and that’s something that musicals often sacrifice in order to celebrate a moment. But this film has too oppressive a milieuto really get away with that, so it needs to drive forward, from a bad situation to a worse: without shark-like constant forward motion, the audience isn’t going to want to hang about waiting for the next sordid crisis. The sequence which damages the momentum most is the song “By the Sea,” which doesn’t advance the story at all, but may be absolutely essential as the only scene to admit bright light, blue sky and fresh air into the film. It helps the sense of space even as it damages the sense of time. My theory is that the song may have been necessary on stage to show how Mrs. Lovett feels about Todd, but due to the huge amounts of emotional information conveyed by Helena Bonham-Carter in close-up, it’s redundant several times over in film terms.

5) Alan Rickman. Although he fills his trews prodigiously, Rickman has an unpleasant singing voice and is too predictable a baddie to offer much here, except when Judge Turpin has a sentimental moment. Rickman wisely makes the most of these: it’s unexpected to see how moved Turpin is by Todd’s lie that his ward has “repented” and wants to see him again.

6) Blocking. David Bordwell has argued very coherently that the art of complex blocking in Hollywood films has almost been lost. Characters either “walk and talk” or “stand and deliver” — no longer do they stalk around each other and move from close-up to long-shot and back within a single take. Burton has a reputation as a visual stylist, but he struggles to bring the songs to dramatic life through dynamic movement: shot as if they were dialogue scenes in a very dark episode of Eastenders, the songs feel somewhat squashed. Since this musical doesn’t use dance at all, a choreographic interplay of camera and actor would have been nice — oddly, this is something Burton has often brought to action sequences in other films. He does a bit of his trademark swooping, but that’s a bit overpowering. The Minnelli touch is lacking.

Hair today

7) The deplorable absence of Christopher Lee. It was announced early on that Lee would play a part, but he was later dropped (along with the other ghosts). He would have been the best singer in it. Lee has suggested that his part was cut due to time difficulties: Johnny Depp’s daughter became ill during filming and some shooting days were lost. In which case, one can only sympathise, and admire Depp’s performance even more.

Still, despite my admiration for Johnny and Helena’s work here, I can’t avoid a little thought experiment, as to who could have been cast if the film had been rushed into production in 1979, after the play’s premiere…


SWEENEY TODD: the British horror version

demon in need of barber

Director: Piers Haggard. His experience with the BBC period musical Pennies From Heaven and the Tigon horror BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW makes him a fitting choice. and his lovely and talented daughter Daisy would have been just the right age to play the baby Johanna. (Daisy, who always cries at the end of KING KONG because the big gorilla reminds her of her dad.)

SWEENEY TODD: Christopher Lee.

MRS. NELLIE LOVETT: Barbara Steele.


JOHANNA: Britt Ekland, dubbed by Annie Ross.

TOBIAS RAGG: Dexter Fletcher.

JUDGE TURPIN: Peter Cushing.

BEADLE BAMFORD: Donald Pleasence.

BEGGAR WOMAN: Sheila Keith.

ADOLFO PIRELLI: Vincent Price.

Hmmm, I can’t quite decide which version I’d rather see. With my usual perversity, I think I’ll plump for the one that doesn’t exist.

9 Responses to “On His Todd”

  1. Barbara would make a scrumptious Mrs. Lovitt.

  2. There’s actually more plot in the film than the stage musical. Because it’s all “up close and personal” we get to see Sweeney and the Mrs. as integrated personalities, rather than Big Deal Singers.

    And Sondheim loves it. So there!

  3. I thought for a moment you meant Barbara Windsor, and I thought, “that makes sense!”
    It’s interesting how such totally different people could work in the same part. But Babs W probably wouldn’t match up so smoothly with Johnny Depp. Better call in his role model, Anthony Newley to play opposite her.
    Depp and Helena B-C are a sweet couple onscreen.

  4. Catharine Says:

    Being familiar with the original Sondheim, I really missed the ‘ghost’ chorus of Ballad of Sweeney Todd. So much power was lost without the lyrics. Also missing was Judge Turpin’s Joanna song, in which he struggles with his creepy desires–would have added nuance to the character.

  5. Burton said something about ‘Why should we hear a song inviting us to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” when we could just be attending it?’ which I think is pretty dumb. Burton’s brains are all gathered around his eyes, when he opens his mouth it’s ruination.
    Turpin could do with some depth — Rickman comes into his own when he has more than a pantomime villain to play.
    But the film feels a little long already — without strategies to keep it moving and break up the claustrophobia I’m not sure how much more runnign time it could bear.
    Welcome aboard, Catharine — and now you must suggest a euphoric little movie moment!

  6. 1.
    I generally liked the look. I think it made sense it was so claustrophobic and murky. It helps the story. I would feel like being in a murky claustrophobic place if I was a compulsive mass murderer.

    Rickman was not given much to work with for his part, which is a shame. I was constantly waiting for him to do something really disturbing with the girl, but it just didn’t happen. He actually didn’t came across as a villain at all next to Todd.
    So he wanted to marry a teenager, I am sure EVERYONE would have wanted to marry that girl, -I would! The backstory was so short and shallow, you simply forgot that he brought on Todd’s misery. –Which doesn’t help Depp’s character either.
    But I think Rickman did what he could with his character. The sentimental moment you mentioned did not come out of the blue. I felt he was playing him constantly with vulnerability and insecurity. He was just a sad sad man. Which I think was a smart way to go, with the script not giving him what was needed to be a real villain. Somehow he came across as more tragic than Todd!
    And who needs a good singing voice when they have THAT speaking voice?
    P.S.: I want to be a bookshelf.

    Oh God, just keep Christopher Lee out of this! He is already in everything else! Christopher Lee has turned into one of the most boring actors I can think off.
    I was disappointed that Anthony Head was only in it for about 30 seconds.

    -But I suggest Christopher Walken as Sweeney Todd in your version. –That’s some guaranteed good singing plus dance number plus impressive hair!

    I did enjoy this film and it was interesting seeing Johnny Depp in this role. I was exited about it being a musical, but then I felt that the songs started to get too long for me sometimes because I wanted to get more out of the story and the music just was not good enough to help with that, I also felt like the songs were somtimes placed into scenes where they were not very effective. Musical numbers can do so much more to a story if they are placed right.
    I would not say that Burton always is rubbish with story telling. I remember that his older films including the Batman films touched me very deeply. –Maybe I was young and easily impressed but I feel like it is something that happened to his films only a few years ago. And since then watching his films is rather annoying because they are wonderful looking and have potentially good stories but in the end you always feel that it had so much potential and could have been so much better!

  7. It’s a real shame Walken didn’t appear in this, but then, there’s no dancing… he should certainly have had Gere’s part in Chicago.

    Rickman did terrible things in the backstory AND he had the sickly youth beaten up. I was quite keen for him to die. You just like him because he’s Snape!

    I NEARLY found the songs excessive but felt they usually worked, even if sometimes when they started out I thought “Oh no, here we go again,” by the end I usually liked them.

    Christopher Lee CAN be incrdibly exciting OR rather dull. He needs direction and a good part. he’s very funny in Gremlins II and great as Dracula and Scaramanga and Lord Summerisle.

    Batman Returns is a great example of Burton’s narrative cluelessness — why does the Penguin need a new plan every ten minutes? What does Catwoman WANT? Why does Batman have nothing to do for the first 45 mins? Why is Christopher Walken’s character necessary? (I know we like to have him around, but still…) Great visuals, nice one-liners, terrible story.

    Ed Wood was the first one with a reasonable script, and apparently Burton filmed it exactly as it was when he got it — not a bad idea.

    Reading Burton on Burton, it’s clear that TB doesn’t actually know what film narrative is. He knows films are visual, and he’s right, but the idea of telling stories with the visuals eludes him completely.

  8. Oh yes, Gere was a sin in Chicago, he made the film a pain to watch!

    And I know what Rickman did in the backstory but like I said, it was so short and told like it didn’t matter that it just got washed away.
    “You just like him because he’s Snape!” –now that is SO UNFAIR!
    Who knows what your real reasons were for wanting to see him die!

    I like Christopher Lee in his older roles, like Dracula, I just feel that lately he shows up everywhere and to me at least it seems to not make a difference whether he is there or not, no matter who he plays, which only means that sometimes he makes a potentially really good character just disappear cause… it’s just Christopher Lee again…

    “Batman Returns is a great example of Burton’s narrative cluelessness “ and I was still deeply moved, something must have been right about it all… besides Gotham City in the Snow and Walken with snowy hair.
    And Edward Scissorhands I think was really really good.

  9. I wanted to see Rickman killed for Sound Moral Reasons. Actually, the film is a very good anti-revenge tract: we should want Sweeney to get his revenge, but when he does, it just makes everything worse.

    It’s true, Lee is often cast as an icon rather than an actor, and he sometimes behaves like one — stands there, imposing, inert.

    Well, the Batman films have the good music and photography: the Penguin’s origin is extremely powerful.

    Edward Scissorhands gets by on music and imagery too, the story is pretty shaky and the dialogue awful. But it has three or four stand-out scenes that it plays to the hilt, and they really work.

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