As everyone's been saying for months now, there are going to be two basic camps of people seeing (and talking about) Tim Burton's screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd: those who've seen and love the musical on stage (and/or those who generally go into orgasms of ecstasy for Stephen Sondheim in general), and those who've never seen the stage version, but who generally go into orgasms of ecstasy for all things Burton. There are, no doubt, those who loathe Burton, but if you loathe Burton, why would you go out of your way to see one of his films anyhow?
At any rate, I fall into the second camp -- love Burton, never seen Sweeney Todd on stage. I went into the film knowing only the basic storyline, and that it was gory, and that it was directed by Burton and stars Johnny Depp. That was enough for me to want to see the film, and I wanted to see it not knowing more than that, so I've been avoiding as much as possible all the buzzing about the film on other sites. I even set aside the cool hardcover Sweeney Todd production book that arrived in the mail last week to savor after the screening, so I'd go into the film with as fresh an eye as possible.
The film opens with rivers of bright red blood flowing through the cobblestone cracks of a London nearly as dismal as the Paris we met in the opening of Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (one of my favorite films of last year). Much as Sweeney Todd is going to be compared to Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands, for me, right from the opening credits, it evoked Perfume more. After zooming us through a cramped, filthy, dismal London, Burton takes us onto a ship arriving in London, where we meet the beautiful and aptly named young sailer Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower, who's almost -- but not quite -- prettier than Depp), singing "No Place Like London," in which he's joined by his friend Benjamin Barker (Depp), freshly escaped from an Australian prison and returning home to a London he views with a far darker and cynical eye than the fresh-faced sailor. From the first words Barker sings -- and more, from the way Depp acts the part -- we get a sense of just how dark his story is going to be.
Barker, now going by the moniker "Sweeney Todd," is returning to London to exact his revenge upon the dastardly Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who put Barker in prison on trumped-up charges so that he could steal Barker's wife, the lovely, yellow-haired Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelley), and the happy couple's infant daughter Johanna. Fifteen years later, Barker has changed his name to Sweeney Todd, and is on his way to his old stomping grounds over at Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pie shop to make a plan for revenge.
Enter Mrs. Lovett (Hey! It's Helena Bonham Carter in a Tim Burton film! What are the odds ...?), the proprietress of the pie shop, where cleanliness isn't on the menu, and the pies are crawling with roaches, inside and out. Yum. This is Bonham-Carter's first song in the film, and while she does an adequate enough job with the singing, neither she nor Depp has a booming stage voice. But this is a movie, not Broadway; the acting and the close-up emoting are what matters more here anyhow, and both Depp and Bonham-Carter bring these desperately dark characters to life with reliably methodical performances. Both Depp and Bonham-Carter are so good in their roles, in fact, that the mediocrity of the singing is almost a distraction at times, and I found myself wishing during a couple of the musical numbers that we could have more acting and less singing (I know, I know, it's sacrilege to wish for less music in a Sondheim musical, but there it is).
When Todd learns from Mrs. Lovett that his lovely Lucy took arsenic after he was sent to prison, and that Judge Turpin adopted his daughter Johanna as his ward, you can see the darkness descending further onto the barber like a physical thing. The pain and rage Depp evokes as Todd's world-view narrows until he can see nothing but blood-red revenge is rather a remarkable thing to watch -- there's a reason Depp is recognized as one of the best actors of his generation, and we see it in this film.
There were a few numbers where the singing worked better for me -- "By the Sea," where Mrs. Lovett fantasizes out her romantic vision of life with Todd (if only he'd get past that pesky little obsession with killing the judge), feels more like a fully realized stage number, the brighter colors of the dream world contrasting sharply with the dark palette of the real world. In "My Friends," Depp's love song to his razors, Depp's acting chops far outweigh any quips with his singing. In "Pretty Women," a duet with Alan Rickman, the powerful acting by both men really brings the pathos of the song to life; you may get better singing on Broadway, but you're not likely to outbest Rickman and Depp in depth of emotion. Rickman is simply stellar at playing these lonely, miserable men: Snape in the Harry Potter films, of course, but also his overlooked performance in Snow Cake and even his role in Perfume, where he also hid away a daughter, although for very different reasons than his obsessive love for Johanna.
There's not a lot of humor to be found in Sweeney Todd (some fellow critics I was talking with after the film felt that it desperately needed some, but I liked it as is), and what humor there is comes not from Depp, who wears his rage on his sleeve from start to bitter end, but for Sacha Baron Cohen as Todd's rival barber, Adolfo Pirelli. Cohen is just spot-on perfect in the role, bringing a much-needed bit of humor to lighten the mood a bit. We also meet Toby (Ed Sanders), Pirelli's young assistant, who plays a pivotal role later in the film. Also worthy of note is Timothy Spall in a deliciously seedy turn as Beadle Banford.
The typically bleak-and-gloomy Burton color palette -- lots of muted browns, grays, dusty blacks and blues, is enhanced by the intensely dismal cinematography -- the film visually has that Burton dark "feel" to it, but this is more straight nightmare than tongue-in-cheek darkness ala Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, or even Corpse Bride. Contrasting starkly against all this gloom are the brilliantly red gobs of gore. And gobs there are -- rivers of it. The last half of the film literally flows with blood -- brilliant red gushes in almost every scene. And some will be turned off by the violence and bloodiness of the film, metaphorical or not, but I personally found some of the most humor in the film in Todd's over-the-top throat slashing and the catapulting of bodies into the basement to be made into human meat pies.
This is arguably Burton's darkest film -- it's reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands, of course, with Todd slashing away with those wicked razors, but whereas Edward was essentially kind and harmless in spite of his scary appearance, Todd's nurtured rage has made him a lethal madman. Hatred of Turpin has literally sucked the life out of him, as life itself has sucked it out of Mrs. Lovett; both characters evoke that stark, almost vampiric gothiness Burton so loves -- ghost pale with brownish circles under the eyes (Depp's rimmed with a red that grows more intense with his rage).
This is a deeply tragic story, a tale about the futility of revenge (Todd), the futility of coveting that which doesn't belong to you (Turpin), the futility of hope (Anthony and Johanna, the young lovers), the futility of love (Mrs. Lovett and, to a lesser degree, young Toby). There's just nothing uplifting at all about the storyline, and yet, as the closing credits rolled, I found myself wanting to watch this film over and over again, all the better to appreciate all the subtle nuances of the performances, the directing, and the cinematography. Sondheim purists will no doubt fault the singing and the omission and truncation of some of the songs, but you can't fault the acting by all the leads in this film; taking on a story this dark and tragic and bringing it to screen is a challenge most directors wouldn't take on, but Burton and Depp put their stamp on Sweeney Todd, bringing the Demon Barber of Fleet Street to life for a whole new audience.
For more on Sweeney Todd, check out Jette's review and Moviefone's Unscripted interview with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton