Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The nominations:

  • Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Johnny Depp
  • Achievement in Art Direction
  • Achievement in Costume Design

The Black-and-White:

As many others have said before me, this is a musical for people who don’t like musicals. There is no chorus, no big production numbers.

The oscar.com synopsis doesn’t even mention that there’s singing:

In nineteenth-century London, barber Sweeney Todd seeks revenge on the corrupt judge who had him falsely arrested and sent to Australia in an attempt to steal Sweeney’s wife. When his plan to kill the judge goes awry, Sweeney begins to murder his clients indiscriminately, with the help of his neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, who disposes of his victims by baking them into meat pies.

It’s polar opposite of the guileless, technicolor joyfest of Hairspray — dark colors, dark lyrics, dark humor. But what else would you expect from Tim Burton?

Johnny Depp is excellent in the title role (as always). He throws himself into the character of the tortured Todd, and although the character is written to have basically only one facial expression or emotion through the film, Depp does have the chance to show some range in flashbacks. Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman are both strong in supporting roles, although neither is much different than their Harry Potter characters Bellatrix Lestrange and Severus Snape.

Their singing is better than passable, especially given how difficult Stephen Sondheim’s dare-we-call-them melodies are. But the movie makes it clear that the quality of the voices is not the point — it’s the story that matters.

Which brings me to the one big criticism I have of the film: the sound was mixed in a way that the lush orchestrations drowned out the lyrics of almost every song, and particularly the ones sung by non-singers. Because the film has very little spoken dialogue, the lyrics are crucial to understanding the story. Also, because it’s Sondheim, the lyrics are meant to delight, and thus meant to be heard.

Otherwise, I found the film really enjoyable, and one of the best overall this year.

Costume designer Colleen Atwood had a big challenge since so much of the film’s color has been desaturated. She overcomes this with brilliant use of texture (like this), and strategic infusions of bright color (like this). The only costume I really felt didn’t work was Anthony Hope’s (Jamie Cambpell Bower) outfit which felt far too jean-jackety and modern to me.

Atwood has been nominated for costume design seven times, including for her work in Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. She’s won twice, both for period pieces (Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago). I think her achievement in this film is certainly more significant than the costumes in Atonement, and her biggest competition is probably from Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Like the costumes, the sets rely heavily on texture rather than lots of color or dressing. The film is beautiful to look at and evokes exactly right balance of creepiness and authenticity. Dante Ferretti has been nominated nine times for art direction, all for period pieces like this one, and has one win under his belt (The Aviator). I’ve only seen one other of the nominees (again, Atonement) but I think this was definitely the best achievement between the two.

The bottom line is that if you like musicals, you’ll probably like this movie. And if you don’t like musicals, you’ll probably still like this movie.

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