A wronged barber in 19th-century London wielding silver razors on a mission of vengeance sings ”They all deserve to die!” in the thrilling epiphany aria that’s the first-act climax of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As any besotted devotee of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical-theater masterpiece knows, they all do. Die, I mean. Thwarted just when he has the throat of the villain he most wants in his hands — the evil Judge Turpin, who sent the then-named Benjamin Barker to prison years earlier on false charges — the brooding tonsorial artist expands his killing plans to include all who sit in his barber chair. The legend of this grim reaper and the widowed baker, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who assisted him by grinding up dead customers into meat pies has been around for over 150 years. But only Sondheim’s music and lyrics could explain the barber’s reasoning so eloquently: ”The lives of the wicked should be made brief/For the rest of us death will be a relief.”
In other words, to stage a proper Sweeney Todd, necks must be slit, human flesh must be squished into pastries, and blood ought to spurt in fountains and rivers of death. Enter Tim Burton, who has chopped and kneaded an almost dauntingly famous theater piece into something that stands up to the screen, and has tenderly art-directed soup-thick, tomato-red, fake-gore blood with the zest of a Hollywood-funded Jackson Pollock.
Burton’s adaptation, starring Johnny Depp in the title role and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, isn’t the most enduringly classic Sweeney Todd (that would be the original Broadway production, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury) or the most brilliantly original (nothing beats the deconstructed 2005 stunner, with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone). Songs have been cut and characters reproportioned in importance (the utilitarian screenplay, respectful enough of Hugh Wheeler’s original book, is by John Logan, who co-wrote Gladiator). But this opulent, attentive production is splashed with signature style and hell-bent on entertaining Sondheimites, Deppsters, ladies who heart Alan Rickman in the role of the judge, and even Borat/Ali G-loving strays who wander in to see an uncontainably antic Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of a blackmailing faux-Italian con man. It’s an impossible assignment, really, carried off with more-than-respectable panache
Indeed, the movie is so finely minced a mixture of Sondheim’s original melodrama and Burton’s signature spicing that it’s difficult to think of any other filmmaker so naturally suited for the job. (Okay, I’d love to see what American Psycho director Mary Harron would have done, but I’m sure DreamWorks wouldn’t.) What Burton lacks (and I suspect he knows he lacks) in ease when it comes to directing fully liberated glee, real fear, and dangerous hilarity, he steadfastly attempts to make up for with compensatory floods of visual verve. Plus, he gets Depp, Bonham Carter, Rickman, and even Baron Cohen to sing.
Oh, Captain Jack Sparrow, gone to the really, really dark side! Burton has an affinity for the mayhem’s Grand Guignol setting, of course. But more valuably, he has a unique collaborative relationship with his longtime leading man. And painted in chalky pallor and drop-dead under-eye shadows out of the Pirates of the Caribbean?Edward Scissorhands makeup bag, Depp propels the production through sheer graceful grit of stardom. He emphasizes the mourning man’s melancholy (he misses his lost wife and the daughter who’s now the hideous judge’s ward) with a cold Sleepy Hollow ghostliness, rather than a hot, iniquities-of-the-world fury. Depp is a decent enough singer in a cast for whom vocal prowess isn’t job No. 1 or even job No. 5, but singing almost doesn’t matter, not while he’s around: He’s the most interesting person on the screen, and the demon barber he conjures is a fascinating interpretation.
As for Mrs. Lovett, she truly is a woman of ”limited wind,” as Sondheim describes her and Bonham Carter sings her in a thin, breathy voice — it’s difficult to believe that this particular bloody wonder can lift a rolling pin, let alone crank the handle on her hellish meat-grinding machinery. It’s nice, though, how Bonham Carter’s corpse-bride complexion complements Depp’s; how Rickman’s sadistic Judge Turpin oozes real erotic heat, not just twisted sexual tastes; and how honorably a big studio has, er, stuck its neck out to do right by one of the great American artistic creations of our time. B+