'Sweeney Todd' will leave you gushing
If ever a film went straight for the jugular, it’s Tim Burton’s razor-sharp interpretation of “Sweeney Todd,” a marriage of music and the macabre guaranteed to leave customers gushing.
In giving the Demon Barber of Fleet Street a cinematic makeover, the master of heartfelt horror has created a monster smash every bit as brilliant and bloody as the Stephen Sondheim musical on which it’s based.
Amazing sets, gorgeous songs and a killer cast featuring the sinfully talented Johnny Depp (yes, “Pirates” fans, he can sing!) give the film its cachet, but it’s Burton who infuses it with soul.
He’s perfectly suited to tell the legend of Sweeney Todd, the 18th-century London barber who slit the throats of more than 150 men with his trusty razors. Crimes made all the more grotesque by the fact that he chopped the corpses up and conspired with his landlord to dispose of the remains in her “delicious” meat pies.
Burton aces every glorious minute of it, too, despite having to shave nearly an hour off the original Broadway version. He also removed a lot of the stagier aspects of Sondheim’s 1979 masterpiece (which was based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond), and made it skew much younger, Angela Lansbury be damned.
She, of course, made the pivotal part of the love-struck landlord, Mrs. Lovett, her signature role. But she now has significant competition from Helena Bonham Carter, making a strong play for Oscar with a performance that is at once hilarious and touching.
Her cockney-tinged vocals seduce you with their earnestness, effectively capturing the longings of a lonely woman whose overtures of love repeatedly go unrequited. Your heart bleeds for her.
More importantly, she has the gravatis to stand toe-to-toe with Depp, an actor capable of stealing a movie from the best. You’ll remember how witty and smart his performances can be as you watch his haunting portrayal of Todd.
With a shocking streak of gray in his shock of jet-black hair, Depp looks appropriately menacing, his ashen face a sign that all humanity has been flushed away by the wrongs he endured long ago. He’s out to avenge those crimes, returning to London after fleeing an Australian prison.
He’s heard revenge is sweet, but he’s about to find out it’s also self-destructive, an arc that Depp renders in riveting tones of anger and self-loathing. But it’s his singing that really astounds. His voice flows from the gut and not the head.
The gut is also where Depp’s terrific performance hits you most, as you find your empathy for Todd increasing, ironically, as the body count mounts. And the bodies that will count most are those harboring the dark souls of the men who stole his wife, his child, his freedom and his sanity.
As members of that most-wanted list, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall ooze sliminess and evil, perfectly in keeping with the melodramatic aspects of Sondheim’s original inspiration. Spall, who sang beautifully in Mike Leigh’s terrific “Topsy-Turvy,” does the same here as the cunning but slightly doltish Beadle, the ace henchman of Rickman’s Judge Turpin, the man who sent Todd away and now keeps the barber’s beautiful daughter, Johanna (Jane Wisener), under lock and key.
While Rickman is easily the poorest singer in the cast, he more than makes up for it with his arrogant villainy, an attribute that served him well in the original “Die Hard” and throughout the “Harry Potter” series. Sure Turpin is a cliché as old as the “Perils of Pauline,” but Rickman makes it, excuse the expression, sing.
Still, Rickman would have been the last guy I thought I’d see in a musical if not for Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, popping up here for a brief but memorable turn as the charlatan barber Pirelli. Is there no end to this comic’s talents?
Joining him in filling out the terrific ensemble are Edward Sanders as Toby, the Dickensian tyke Mrs. Lovett affectionately takes into her home, and Jamie Campbell Bower as the dreamy teen sailor (watch out Zac Efron) bent on rescuing Johanna. It’s also Bower who gets to sing the lilting showstopper, “Johanna,” the loveliest of a host of beautiful Sondheim songs that contrast sharply and effectively with the darkness of a story tersely adapted by Oscar-winner John Logan (“Gladiator”).
No praise for “Sweeney Todd,” however, would be complete without mention of production designer Dante Ferretti (“Gangs of New York”), whose recreation of the drab, despair-filled streets of 18th-century London are as spectacular as they are unsettling; and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who’s images are so washed of hue that you’d almost swear the film was in black and white.
Clearly, the lack of color is meant as homage to the great horror pictures of the 1930s, films that became a huge influence on Burton. Never, however, have those sensibilities served the material as strongly as they do in “Sweeney Todd,” the rare musical that bleeds passion and art like a gapping wound. This one will slay you.
Rated R. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” contains graphic violence.