Perhaps still intrigued with musicals after directing the animated The Corpse Bride with Helena Bonham Carter and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp, director Tim Burton reunited with the top two players from his personal stock company and crafted this vivid film version of the 1979 stage musical, which had Stephen Sondheim set music and lyrics to Christopher Bond's prior revamping of the classic penny dreadful pulp tale about a barber named Sweeney Todd who cuts the throats of men innocently wanting the removal of their five o'clock shadows, and Mrs. Lovett, a thoughtful baker who sought to reduce Todd's carbon footprints by redirecting the cadavers into a successful line of meat pies.
Depp's rendition of Todd is a delicious fusion using Beethoven's physical posture – including Ludwig's maniacal hair – and the low vocal style of David Bowie, with Depp waving, fondling and singing odes to his fine set of silver-handled straight razors, hidden by Mrs. Lovett when the evil Judge Turpin had Todd wrongfully convicted, raped his wife, and raised their daughter Johanna as his personal ward until she reached an age appropriate for a socially inappropriate marriage.
Alan Rickman frequently conjures the beloved spirit of Die Hard's Hans Gruber, particularly in scenes wherein he admonishes the young green-eared Anthony Hope (Todd's seaman friend) for ogling Johanna, and when Turpin sentences a repeat offender to death, quite indifferent as to whether the pre-teen was guilty of the crime.
Playing the judge as a well-traveled man with his own collection of dirty foreign art, Rickman, like Depp, also sings his lyrics with just the right amount of contempt for mankind, plus his burgeoning love for teenage Johanna in an exquisite duet that has Turpin and Todd almost bonding as vengeful men while each conspires to commit his own cruel fantasy.
Had Todd been able to slice Turpin's neck so early into the story, the film would've been over too early, so it's only natural the barber's scheme is foiled by a subplot that sets in motion a number of cruel ironies revealed in the film's final scene.
Overall, it's a tragic tale of pitch black revenge, and the filmmakers don't shy away from any violence. The first victim, a pompous, pseudo-Italian barber named Signor Adolfo Pirellli, is the first to be drained of his blood when the character's blackmail scheme is cut short by Todd's straight razor. Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) almost chews the scenery as the egocentric twit, sewn into his blue satin toreador costume, and sporting a nasty ironed-down part that ends with rolling pin hair curls just above the ears.
Todd's repurposing of his old barber chair also gives director Burton free license to indulge in myriad throat-slittings, jugular sprays, and a sly victim disposal system that's accomplished in grisly detail by tilting back the chair, and tossing the half-dead fool down a chute, where he lands on the head and awaits Mrs. Lovett's industrial meat grinder. The Dolby Digital mix nicely supports these Frank Tashlin-styled montages with neck cracks and cranial thuds, and Burton flips to several differing angles, sometimes giving us a glimpse of a victim's frozen, shocked visage, laced with a wee bit of embarrassment.
The gore, bloody sprays, and subtext of adults relishing inappropriate buggery are neither indulged in nor softened, ensuring this film version of the Sondheim musical is aimed squarely at adults. Just as surprising are several jabs at Victorian corruption, which has Pirelli's abused assistant drink a few pints of gin as a sleep aid – something the boy learned while growing up in an orphanage. The deaths are memorable, and a moment of vengeful immolation is beautifully detailed to enhance the rage that's completely corrupted the soul of a particular character.
Sondheim's vicious lyrics are supported by some buoyant scenes, particularly the grisly duet that has Todd and Mrs. Lovett fantasizing whether the use of a priest, lawyer, or local fop would spice up the revamped meat pies. The duet, like most of the musical numbers, glide between short bits of connective dialogue, and Burton is surprisingly restrained in his technique; with the exception of a fast-moving montage that ratchets the editing tempo, Burton uses tight framing, and frequently indulges in massive, intimate close-ups, recalling early thirties and forties melodramas.
The sets and cinematography are angled towards evoking an acid-washed view of an effluent-encrusted London, and the use of digital effects is more ambient, with some brief city views resembling three-dimensional theatrical silk screens over which the camera glides.
One could argue there are perhaps a few too many murders that slow down the pacing, but the star of the film is clearly Stephen Sondheim's music, which propels the sad saga of a barber gone bad, and the woman, who for one shining period in her career, baked meat pies to die for.
Fans of the Sweeney Todd legacy can also check out several DVD releases, including the BBC's 2006 version of the stage musical starring Ray Winstone and Essie Davis; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a 1982 taping of the Los Angeles performance starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury; a 2001 taping with George Hearn and Patti LuPone; and a rare 1936 British film version of the penny dreadful tale starring the appropriately named Tod Slaughter, and Stella Rho.
If none of those sate this grisly celebration of the other white meat, then go buy some meat pies, have a Cornish pasty, or indulge in a tortierre with some ale.
This review originally appeared as part of the Mondomark Blog.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan