I've loved the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ever since my college days, when a then-boyfriend introduced me to the original Broadway soundtrack with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. I've never had the chance to see a live stage version, only tapes of productions: the 1982 show with George Hearn and Lansbury, and a 2001 concert of the musical numbers with Hearn and Patti LuPone (and Neil Patrick Harris as Toby, although I didn't realize it at the time). When I heard about the play being adapted for film, I was pessimistic, especially when the big-name, small-singing-voice cast was announced. Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett? Hmpf. Although I usually am attracted to movies starring Johnny Depp, I was skeptical that he would make a believable Demon Barber.
Fortunately for me and any other fans of the musical, it turns out that the movie version of Sweeney Todd is quite charming in its dark and twisted way, although not without some flaws and odd choices. The overall look of the film is quite Burton-esque, occasionally to excess (Sweeney's outfit in the "By the Sea" number is unpleasantly jarring), but for the most part this serves the old story of the vengeful barber very well. The tone seems darker than the stage musical, perhaps because we're seeing actors and violent scenes up close.
Sweeney Todd, set in Victorian-era London, has more plot than many stage musicals. Sweeney Todd (Depp), formerly known as Benjamin Barker, arrives in the city after being away for many years. Villainous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who jailed Todd/Barker to gain access to his lovely wife Lucy, has made Barker's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) his ward and intends to marry her. Sweeney finds this out from his old landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Carter), who runs the worst pie shop in London. Mrs. Lovett is still smitten with Sweeney and supports him as he plots revenge against the Judge. Sweeney plans to return to his former occupation -- barber -- cutting more than hair with those very sharp blades.
That's just the first act, and I haven't yet mentioned Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), Sweeney's young sailing partner who is enamored with Sweeney's daughter Johanna. Or Judge Turpin's oily sidekick Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). Or the brief but scene-stealing turn from a rival barber, Signor Pirelli -- played to perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen -- and his child servant Toby (Ed Sanders).
Burton and screenwriter John Logan manage to compress the long-ish stage musical without leaving gaps in or rushing through storyline. Some delightful moments are lost, naturally. It's unfortunate that the recurring "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is relegated to background instrumentals (I suspect Burton originally hoped to use a chorus, which may be why Christopher Lee and Anthony Head were cast and later cut). On the other hand, the second act of the musical tends to bog down a little while Sweeney waits for his opportunity for revenge, and here the streamlined action in the movie succeeds better than the stage production, with continual suspense and good pacing.
Everyone wants to talk primarily about the casting for this movie, especially the leads. Let's face it, Depp and especially Carter are not first-rate singers. However, Sweeney Todd requires good acting as much as good singing. Depp is a younger and more sprightly Sweeney than we might be accustomed to seeing, and at times the combination of jerky body language, pale face and black leather coat reminded me uncomfortably of Edward Scissorhands. Carter is so instantly recognizable that it's more difficult to believe her as Mrs. Lovett, but she adds a wistful sweetness to the role that works surprisingly well. She's not a jolly Cockney stereotype like Angela Lansbury, but is more like a grown-up urchin girl who can't quite make her way in the world and who longs for a sign of affection from the man she's always loved.
The actors can be a little more understated in their roles in the movie than stage actors often need to be. For example, it's a pleasure to see Depp give a more subtle reading to "At last, my arm is complete again," when I've heard the line bellowed so it bordered on the ridiculous. Judge Turpin is set up as being the worst type of villain in the most stereotypical and unsubtle ways, but Rickman is stylish and nuanced enough to keep the character from caricature (he can't sing well either, but it hardly seems to matter). Admittedly it may be a little weird for Harry Potter fans to see Rickman and Spall together, not to mention Carter, but it doesn't detract from the film.
Finally, I was impressed by the decision to cast a child as Toby, Pirelli's servant who befriends Mrs. Lovett. Usually he's played by a grown-up and the implication is that he's a young man who is simple in the head -- I prefer the impact of seeing a child in this role. In addition, young Ed Sanders is one of the better singers in the film, along with Bower and Wisener as the young couple in love. If you feel annoyed by the less-than-robust vocals of the leads, wait around for these actors and you won't be disappointed. (It's too bad Bower has the worst long hair for guys in period film since Ewan McGregor in Emma.)
I've talked about Sweeney Todd from the viewpoint of a fan of the musical, pleased that most of what I liked about the stage production has made its way into the film, and generally unbothered by minor shortcomings in casting and plot. If you don't know anything about Sweeney Todd, expect a lot of singing in service to a dark tale about the seedy side of London, and a little stylized blood and violence. And of course, Johnny Depp, who may be the main attraction for some audience members. He's not at all sexy in this one, but he's certainly fascinating ... as is Sweeney Todd as a whole.