Barber of gore

Pub date December 18, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street works so well you might not notice that it’s based on a Broadway musical, and one that’s close to opera. Which is the idea, of course. Pop musicals have been making a slow, tentative comeback of late by packaging numbers as mind’s-eye fantasies (Chicago), as actual stage performance (Dreamgirls), or with an ironic camp gloss (Hairspray, Enchanted).

But Sweeney Todd is something other than a pop musical — it’s by Stephen Sondheim, for god’s sake, who translates strangely to the movies because his sensibility is complicatedly, wholly theatrical. No one else has so consistently used their reluctance about or contempt toward musical-theater conventions to transcend them; no other stage composer’s so-called flops are so treasured for their good points and risk taking. Sondheim’s characteristic mix of sentimentality, misanthropy, and high art is as Broadway as an $18 souvenir program. And Burton’s best movie since Ed Wood 13 years ago succeeds precisely because it finds ways to be faithful to the source material in particular details while turning the whole into a Tim Burton film — a black comedy–cum–horror movie, albeit one blacker and more horrific than any he’s made before.

Sweeney (Johnny Depp, with Susan Sontag–as–Bride of Frankenstein hair) returns to 19th-century London after escaping a prison island and being rescued by young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower, who bears an alarming resemblance to Clare Danes). Arriving incognito in his sooty, verminous old neighborhood, he’s recognized by his torch-bearing former landlady Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). She tells him his wife poisoned herself long ago and that their daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), is now the close-watched ward of the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who’d framed Sweeney in order to facilitate the rape of his beautiful spouse. Sweeney has just one goal now: wreaking vengeance on Turpin and his wormlike flunky the Beadle (Timothy Spall). Woe to anyone who gets in his way.

Setting himself back up in business as a barber, Sweeney first dispatches an inconvenient rival, Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), then commences seriously decimating the male-customer populace out of frustration after a first shot at the judge is thwarted. Tenderhearted — she takes in Pirelli’s boy assistant, Toby (Ed Saunders) — but also eminently practical, Mrs. Lovett uses this corpse crop to transform her self-deemed "worst pies in London" into a cannibalistic culinary smash.

The acclaimed John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd recently seen at the American Conservatory Theater was ingenious. But by stripping down the production elements (for example, slain characters donned smocks tastefully daubed with red), it drained this musical thriller of, well, blood. Burton doesn’t stint: the sticky stuff flows in geysers here, accompanied by plenty of gore, brutality, and perhaps the single nastiest demise doled out to a leading screen character all year.

The show’s mordant humor remains. Yet from the unusually (for Burton) stark, somber production design to the restrained principal performances, this is a story-driven, serious Sweeney Todd. The original Broadway production’s Len Cariou was a grimacing ghoul and Angela Lansbury a comedy gorgon — together they were a Grand Guignol Punch ‘n’ Judy. Despite their Edward Gorey look, however, Depp and Bonham Carter aren’t playing caricatures but recognizably tormented souls.

But can they sing? Er … kind of. Burton lets the near-incessant, brilliantly orchestrated music provide the ballast, allowing his leads to act their songs, making their small, reedy voices work for them. Even the best singers here (Bower, Saunders, Wisener) have high lyric instruments, not big Broadway guns. The result won’t necessarily please Sondheim purists, but it does lend the material more pathos than usual, especially in the quintessentially macabre-sweet take on "By the Sea" and the empty comfort of "Not While I’m Around." The best movie adaptations of other forms usually succeed because they take the spirit of the original and make it cinema, absolute fidelity be damned. This Sweeney Todd is a practically perfect expression of Burton’s art. But Sondheim comes off all right too. *


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