Tim BURTON’S adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece “Sweeney Todd” is a funny, moody musical blood bath. It’s also notably cuter than its famous theatrical predecessors -- which I guess is what happens when you cast Johnny Depp as the serial throat-slitter and Helena Bonham Carter as his cannibal pie-making accomplice.
“Sweeney Todd” may be the most outrageously macabre piece of musical theater ever created, but Burton can’t help but make it pretty too -- from the gloomy, rain-slicked streets of Victorian London, to the moony Goth stylishness of its leads, to the split-open pomegranate throats of Sweeney’s unsuspecting victims and the various torrents, geysers and wellsprings of glow-in-the-dark blood that spurt from them.
Scaled down and simplified with Sondheim’s blessing, the Burton version reduces both the number of characters and the number of songs. That means no detached chorus of observers commenting on the action in the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” though the song does play under the credits. With the mob thus eliminated and the dolled-up principals shot close up and lovingly, the perspective shifts as the lunatics take over the asylum.
Depp and Bonham Carter are a far cry from George Hearn (who plays Sweeney in the television version of the original Broadway production) and Angela Lansbury. At the same time, Burton has cranked up the Grand Guignol aspect of Sondheim’s story and tones down the social commentary -- or maybe the moral themes of the story (social injustice, alienation, the moral cul-de-sac that is revenge) just can’t compete with the exhilarating camera moves and the buckets of jugular overflow.
Based on the 1979 Broadway musical originally staged by Harold Prince and starring Lansbury and Len Cariou, “Sweeney Todd” is the gruesome story of a man ruined by injustice, driven mad by revenge and summarily exploited by a capitalist system untroubled by scruple or taste. Benjamin Barker was a talented young barber with a pretty wife and a baby daughter when he was wrongfully arrested by a corrupt judge who coveted the wife for himself. Sent away to rot in an Australian penal colony, Benjamin, now going by the name of Sweeney Todd, dreams of revenge and returns to London for that purpose.
Back home, he is recognized by Mrs. Lovett, the widow who owns the meat pie emporium under Todd’s barbershop. She fills him in on what happened to his family in his absence (his wife drank poison and his daughter became the ward of the judge) and reintroduces him to his treasured silver razors. When Todd’s first attempt at killing the judge fails, he expands his murderous rage to encompass all of society, furnishing the vile Mrs. Lovett with an endless supply of fresh meat.
Alan Rickman plays the twisted Judge Turpin, and Timothy Spall appears as his repugnant henchman, the Beadle Bamford. Though Rickman is denied his lech’s version of the love song “Johanna” (a shame), he’s still suitably nasty -- there’s something about the way he acts almost entirely through his nose that lends a perfect sinister snootiness to the part. Spall, meanwhile, does something twisty with his tongue when he sings that couldn’t be more repulsive. But the supporting character who steals the show is Sweeney’s first -- incidental -- victim, Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), a rival barber and trouser-stuffing fake Italian who recognizes him and threatens him with blackmail.
Of course, everyone is corrupt or ruined in “Sweeney’s Todd’s” London (“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit / and it goes by the name of London”), except for the unsullied few protected by their youth or isolation. Jamie Campbell Bower plays Anthony Hope, a young sailor Todd befriends on the voyage back to London who falls in love at first sight with Judge Turpin’s ward Johanna (Jayne Wisener), whom he doesn’t know is Sweeney’s daughter. Bower and Wisener have odd, birdlike faces, though they’re not half as goofy as Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays Sweeney’s young wife, Lucy, a flared-nostril mouth-breather if ever there was one. You get the feeling that Burton’s impulses are not so different from Turpin’s -- his innocents are so annoying and so badly in need of sullying.
Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett should look like a pair of depraved old bags next to the young lovers, but under the circumstances they look more like casually debauched rock stars. Sporting a Susan Sontag streak in his Beethoven mane, Depp slinks around glowering at the world, causing an understandably smitten reaction in Mrs. Lovett. She’s a voluptuous corpse bride with a romantic streak. (In a hilarious fantasy sequence set to the song “By the Sea,” she imagines a blissful future for herself with Sweeney, who, even in her fondest fantasies, never stops scowling.)
It’s not entirely surprising that Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” feels heavier on style than on substance -- so much that the style almost subverts the story. Still, it’s a gorgeous artifact and pretty enjoyable in all.
“Sweeney Todd.” MPAA rating: R for graphic bloody violence. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In wide release.