Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

2 Stars
I had some idea what to expect going into this movie. As expected, the sets were dark and gloomy, the blood spurted high and the orchestra roared dramatically like surf pounding on the rocks. What I didn’t expect was how unmoved I would be by the whole thing. This has to be a major artistic failure.

It shouldn’t be this way. On paper this is a story of tragedy and horror, and I think I am capable of appreciating either or both. But it doesn’t feel tragic because there is nothing in the way the characters are portrayed that makes me care about them in the least. As for horror, I admit that there are a few moments that are sort of gross, but mostly it just seems silly.

But maybe silly is OK. It’s supposed to be a dark comedy, right? Unfortunately it’s a dark comedy in the British sense, meaning that it isn’t actually funny–unless you think it’s inherently funny to see people being murdered so long as they are members of the middle class, or working class people who have risen above themselves.

The acting is supposed to be the strong point of this movie. Johnny Depp’s performance as Sweeney Todd has been touted as Oscar-worthy. But basically he just chews up every piece of scenery in sight and spits out sawdust. Helena Bonham Carter is repulsive as the repulsive Mrs. Lovett, so I suppose that means she does a good job, but from a dramatic standpoint it doesn’t work well–she’s just another character I can’t possibly care about.

Some of the actors in minor roles come off better. Sacha Baron Cohen is pretty funny as a mountebank barber. Alan Rickman as usual shows an effortless dramatic presence, creating a villain who seems really worth hating.

Surely this could have been done better. Maybe if they had started with the main character as an innocent young man, and actually shown us the process that changed him into a fiendish serial killer (instead of just alluding to it in a brief flashback) there could have been a genuine sense of tragedy. Or it could have worked as melodrama if they had built up the characters of Anthony and Johanna, the supposed romantic leads, instead of leaving them as cardboard cyphers whose presence in the story is hardly noticed.

It might have worked better as horror if the director had some sense of dramatic contrast. Every single scene is so murky you would think it was shot at the bottom of a well with no lights. That even applies to scenes set on a beach at high noon.

I know a movie is in trouble when I start noticing things like that. I also noticed that most of the songs actually aren’t very good, and that the characters with the smallest roles have much better singing voices than the lead actors.

And by the way, I don’t recommend this movie.

1 thought on “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

  1. J Greely

    I thought the songs were wonderful… in the 1979 Broadway cast recording. When I heard them in the trailer for this movie, though, I knew it was going to be awful. I can’t imagine anyone listening to Len Cariou’s Sweeney and saying “I can do better”; Depp must have thought so, but the trailer said otherwise.


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