Sweeping, tragic, epic and strange, Sweeney Todd is, without reservations, one of the best films of the year. Blessed with the oddly perfect pairing of director Tim Burton’s gloomy visuals and Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant music and lyrics, it’s a clever adaptation of a notoriously difficult Broadway play. While remaining respectful to the source material, Burton has created something very much his own. It’s grisly and darkly funny in the way we expect from him, but also more emotionally resonant and genuine than perhaps anything he’s done in his career.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) was a happy barber in London, blessed with a beautiful wife and child who, unfortunately, were also admired by the loathsome Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Turpin sent Barker to an Australian prison on false charges and took wife Lucy and infant daughter Johanna as his own. Lucy poisoned herself, leaving Johanna as Turpin’s ward. Back in London after 15 years in exile, Barker, having renamed himself Sweeney Todd, is out for revenge.
The film begins as Sweeney arrives on a ship into a grim, ghostly London, taking leave of shipmate Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower). The camera then flies through the grimy streets, pausing to take note of clusters of prostitutes or drunks, while the music (but not lyrics) from “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” plays in the background. It’s an exhilarating ride, and Burton’s first opportunity to announce that no, you’re not in the theater any more.
Sweeney soon pays a visit to Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), his former landlady who sells meat pies from the shop below his old flat. She’s preserved Sweeney’s razors for him all these years, and with them in hand he announces “My arm is complete again.” He sets up shop as a barber with the single goal of bringing Turpin beneath his blade. In the meantime though, a run-in with arrogant rival barber Signor Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) and a just-missed opportunity to shave Turpin unhinges Sweeney a bit. “We all deserve to die,” he tells Mrs. Lovett, and he sets out to cut the throats of as many men as he can. And with the price of meat what it is, Mrs. Lovett reasons, why waste all the material that’s already in the shop?
That is, forgive me, the meat of Sweeney Todd’s story, along wit a subplot that finds Anthony in love with teenage Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and conspiring to spirit her away from Turpin’s grasp. Anthony and Johanna’s parts have been significantly reduced from the musical, with several songs and scenes eliminated entirely. The effect is interesting: it shortens the story, which had to happen (the stage version is 3 hours long!), and throws more attention to the dark, bloody antics of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. There is love in the air, yes, but it’s overpowered by the stench of blood.
As with any Burton production the visuals are the thing here, and they’re spectacular. Sweeney’s London is a monochromatic swirl of black and gray, right down to Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett themselves, pale as ghosts with eyes rimmed black. The muted colors never feel tired, especially when those colors start to be complemented by bloody reds. All the interiors are cramped and filthy, and the streets are even worse; you’re sucked into the vortex with Sweeney, a world with no color and no hope.
Depp and Bonham Carter moor the gothic story with their terrific performances, jumping into their parts with complete disregard to their lack of singing chops. They accomplish the more important task of making what could be caricatures elementally, achingly human. Depp’s Sweeney is as wronged as the poor saps who suffer his close shaves, and you root for him even as he rejects every moral code he has set for himself. And a surprisingly restrained Bonham Carter is a wondrous Mrs. Lovett, in love with a man who can’t see her and willing to do whatever it takes to win him—cannibalism included.
The supporting cast is superb down the line, particularly Campbell Bower and Wisener, with youthful good looks and powerhouse singing voices that nicely contrast the decrepit, doomed pie makers. Rickman is, as always, deliciously villainous, and his scenes with Depp practically emit sparks. Timothy Spall, as Turpin’s unctuous assistant Beadle Bamford, is always welcome, but it’s Baron Cohen who steals the show as Signor Pirelli—he’s a consistent delight in his entire short-lived part.
Burton’s vision of Sweeney Todd allows room for a little humor, particularly Mrs. Lovett’s “By the Sea” song, which envisions her wedding to Sweeney in a candy-colored world, though they both remain pale-faced and dour. When it’s time to turn to tragedy, though, Burton holds nothing back, and ends the film on a note of such shocking darkness you almost beg for an epilogue.
The bloodletting in the final third of the film is rough, but with one glorious exception, you always see it coming, and it likely won’t get in the way of anyone who could handle Javier Bardem’s air gun in No Country for Old Men. The purists should be satisfied that Sondheim’s music is largely intact, and performed ably and energetically; movie fans across the board should be thrilled that a great musical drama can be turned into a great film, a film as gripping and heartbreaking as any in which characters don’t burst into song. Sweeney Todd is often considered Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece; it’s too early to say, but it may be Tim Burton’s as well.