Visionary director Tim Burton, with the help of frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, successfully adapts Sondheim’s classic stage musical Sweeney Todd.
Anyone familiar with Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd can tell you it’s not your typical musical. A story about a bloodthirsty barber who executes his customers, it may have never to come to the screen if not for the commercially proven team of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. The result is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the pair’s best collaboration since Ed Wood. It’s a rare film, one that manages to go back and forth from darkly humorous to downright horrifying.
Sweeney is Burton’s first crack at a live-action musical and he handles it well. There is a good balance between singing and dialogue. The narrative never stands still, so the characters can sing at each other. The songs are woven into the action of the film and the pacing stays entertaining. The score is very strong and is a constant presence throughout the movie, composed entirely of music from the original stage production. Some songs have been dropped, but nothing new has been added, so die-hard fans of the original should not be too offended.
Johnny Depp continues to earn his reputation as an actor with great range and talent. His Sweeney has a growling, gravely voice and he brings real venom to the vicious barber’s explosions of rage. He also does his own singing; his voice does not show much range but is more than passable and quite expressive. Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Burton’s wife, is the perfect companion to Depp’s morose Todd. She plays Mrs. Lovett, the lonely operator of London’s least popular bakery. Her voice is not always as strong as Depp’s, but she is otherwise perfectly cast in her role.
The film’s best singing comes from its youngest cast members. Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, and Edward Sanders are all young newcomers obviously cast for their strong singing voices. The cast of villains is just as strong. Alan Rickman will probably be playing a lot more bad guys; he’s extremely creepy as the lecherous Judge Turpin, the man who ruined Sweeney’s life. Of course, the real scene-stealer is Sacha Baron Cohen, otherwise known as Borat, who goes completely over the top as the pompous rival barber Pirelli. The casting department really came through for Sweeney Todd.
To some, another Burton/Depp combo may come off as Hollywood trying to pre-package another hit, but the film is no cheap effort being sold on a name. It is very much a Tim Burton movie, full of his trademark visual strength as well as themes and motifs found in films like Edward Scissorhands. Visually, the movie is incredible. Never has filthy Dickensian London looked so beautiful. It looks a lot like Burton’s earlier film with Depp, Sleepy Hollow. Burton fans should be dancing in the streets; it seems the director has finally shaken off his recent slump.
Despite all the obvious comparisons, Sweeney Todd is a very original work, and quite gutsy given its subject matter. Burton does not shy away from the violence as some adaptations of Sweeney have. Razor sliced throats are front and center here, and the blood follows standard Kill Bill laws, the human body contains gallons of blood, kept under extreme pressure. It’s often too ridiculous to be truly disturbing, but those who cannot stand the sight of blood should keep safely out of spatter range.