I went to see Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd today, which is surprising. What's the surprise? That it's still playing. It's the kind of movie that you might expect to close after one weekend. That's not to say it's bad. More that it's intense, in a sometimes uncomfortable way.
This goes beyond the borderline 3D splatter effects. It also transcends the fact that Sacha Baron Cohen's package poked through his breeches in all his scenes. (Shades of the massive black box in his Borat wrestling scene.) For a big-budget film opening in holiday season--and a musical no less--this is remarkably bleak. Burton and his cast follow the all guts/no glory elements of the storyline to their logical conclusion, and there's not a happy ending in sight.
There is a lot to enjoy here. The black humor, for one thing. Helena Bonham Carter has a great deadpan delivery, which smoothes over scenes like Mrs Lovett pouring a tall gin for an older-than-his-years urchin.
And the music of course. Johnny Depp has his first singing role here, and his tenor and Cockney phrasing both have Bowie written all over them. Burton naturally has an affinity with Stephen Sondheim's work. Sondheim may be the Broadway composer most influenced by Kurt Weill, and he passed that influence onto Burton's other favorite musician, Danny Elfman. And "Sweeney", the Brechtian Victorian gothic, was primed for Burton to take hold of it.
But perhaps it's not just a matter of a director being suited to his source material. The times the movie was made could be on its side too. Benjamin Barker's life falls apart when he is thrown in prison
without apparent charges. Timothy Spall's Beadle Bamford is a public servant whose only concern is how well he enforces the will of his master, and by that standart he's an admirable success. And aside from Sweeney--who's a psychopath after all--the people seem to accept this as natural.
Now I don't mean to suggest parallels... Oh, wait, I guess i just did.