Release Date: December 21, 2007
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: John Logan (screenplay); Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (musical); Christopher Bond (musical adaptation)
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman
Studio/Run Time: DreamWorks/Paramount, 117 mins.
The latest Burtonite adaptation serves up song, dance and blood
Tim Burton brings two of his favorite muses, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, back to the silver screen for the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s hit Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd. Let it be said now that if you don’t like buckets of blood with your bucket of popcorn, this is not the ticket for you. Vicious murders and near-decapitations are executed so routinely and nonchalantly that they become the musical’s choreography. But behind all of this bold, blood-red gore, Burton gives us his artistic and brooding vision of underclass Victorian England as a gritty, dirty and gray world in which vermin and the privileged few are all equally doomed, particularly the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), reinvented as the sardonic Sweeney Todd, returns to London 15 years after the powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) tore him away from his wife and daughter. But upon his arrival to his former home and barbershop, nestled above Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie Shop on Fleet Street, Todd finds it abandoned. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) explains that Barker’s wife poisoned herself after his banishment and that his daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), is now Turpin’s ward. Mrs. Lovett becomes Todd’s only confidant and scheming accomplice as he sets out to kill Turpin in his reopened barbershop.
Depp and Bonham Carter sing through their dialogue quite convincingly, despite no prior vocal training. Depp is also commanding as Todd, a man so blinded by rage that he takes his revenge on both intended and innocent targets alike, slitting necks and stabbing arteries without the slightest hesitation or remorse. Meanwhile, Lovett serves up the dead in her meat pies. Their scenes together, especially in the claustrophobic barbershop, show us two lovelorn-but-despicable characters who are so deranged that they don't see the self-defeating nature of their actions.
Burton juxtaposes the film’s sweeping darkness with a few cheeky (and creepy) colorful scenes, such as Sacha Baron Cohen’s rendering of Signore Pirelli, a kitschy barber and blackmailing conman. Pirelli’s public “shave-off” with Todd is one of the lighter moments in the musical.
But in the jolted nature of the film, that lighter moment is quickly forgotten, overshadowed by sweeping darkness and the uneven treatment of the musical format. Although flat and predictable secondary characters (like two young lovers gazing at each other from opposite sides of the socioeconomic fence) are important to plot twists and turns, they ultimately distract from the intensity of the lead characters, especially Depp’s portrayal of Todd.
As interesting as it is unsettling, Sweeney Todd is ultimately about its title character, a man so blinded by his singular goal of killing Turpin that he misses numerous chances to reunite his family, even when such opportunities are staring him right in the face.