Both sharp and fleet, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” proves a satisfying screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s landmark 1979 theatrical musical. Where much could have gone wrong, things have turned out uniformly right thanks to highly focused direction by Tim Burton, expert screw-tightening by scenarist John Logan, and haunted and musically adept lead performances from Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Assembled artistic combo assures the film will reap by far the biggest audience to see a pure Sondheim musical, although just how big depends on the upscale crowd’s tolerance for buckets of blood, and the degree to which the masses stay away due to the whiff of the highbrow. In all events, DreamWorks-Paramount and Warner Bros. have a classy and reasonably commercial delicacy on their hands.
The composer-lyricist’s bulging shelf of awards and peerless reputation notwithstanding, Sondheim’s own shows have never invited much bigscreen interest, no doubt due to the general feeling that they are works from and for the head rather than the heart. The two films that were made from his musicals, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “A Little Night Music,” were, to put it kindly, hardly representative of the effect the shows had onstage.
Some Broadway purists will gripe about how the film of “Sweeney Todd” omits and abridges certain songs, reshapes the drama to a degree or just can’t measure up to their cherished memories of Angela Lansbury’s wondrous performance as Mrs. Lovett. But it will be hard to argue that Burton and his cohorts have not imaginatively reconceived the piece as a work of cinema; strictly in film terms, “Sweeney” is seamless, coherent and vibrant, with scarcely a trace of “Broadway.”
The flip side of these virtues is that the immaculately designed settings and lack of breathing room lend the film a claustrophobic feel that underlines its status as an art work. Other qualitative considerations to the side, this aspect makes “Sweeney Todd” most recall the much-debated “Evita” among screen versions of post-’60s musicals.
Eschewing trademark mannerisms and flights of fancy, and yet fully imprinting the film with his signature, Burton strongly delivers the dark core of this story of a lower-class London barber whose thirst for revenge against a venal judge gives birth to a prodigious serial killer. Yarn has questionable real-life origins in the 18th century, but came to prominence as a story and a stage drama in the mid-19th century, and in 1973 served as the inspiration for the Christopher Bond play that attracted Sondheim’s attention.
As Sweeney Todd (Depp) sails up the Thames with a young man, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), having escaped from prison in Australia, his bitterly ironic commentary in “No Place Like London” firmly defines the side of the city the film will occupy; in production designer Dante Ferretti’s superb realization, it is a squalid place of narrow streets and dingy rooms. Evoking old Hollywood horror pics, Burton has made something very close to a real black-and-white film, as Ferretti’s sets, the extensive CGI backgrounds, Dariusz Wolski’s lensing, Colleen Atwood’s costumes and the pale makeup are synchronized to permit only traces of bold color — mostly red — to accent a world dominated by shades of gray, blue, white and black.
Sweeney Todd returns with the single-minded intention of killing Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, as deliciously sinister as fans know he can be), who locked him up on false charges so he could make off with the younger man’s lovely wife Lucy and young daughter.
Installed in a room above a dismal pie shop run by his slovenly long-ago landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter), Sweeney has his desire for payback sharpened by the news that Lucy killed herself out of distress and Turpin is now romantically inclined toward Sweeney’s now-teenage daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), who coincidentally catches the eye of the naively romantic Anthony (Campbell Bower’s screen future seems assured, thanks to looks so striking that they distract one from looking even at Depp).
Sweeney’s murderous career commences to the detriment of a fellow barber, charlatan and con artist Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), following a public musical “duel” to determine who in London can administer the quickest, closest shave. Cohen, in his first screen appearance since “Borat,” makes the most of this brief but expansive supporting role, broadly playing the braggart showman with, as required, two different accents and highly colorful costumes.
Mrs. Lovett, a widow who signals her enduring love for Sweeney by having carefully kept his collection of gleaming razors through the years, makes a quick moral adjustment to her boarder’s bloody enterprise by using his victims’ flesh in her meat pies, which brings her business roaring back to life.
All the while, Judge Turpin and his malevolent henchman Beadle Bamford (an unctuous, gruesomely toothsome Timothy Spall) frustratingly elude Sweeney’s clutches; once they’re on to him and Anthony, the virtuous Johanna is thrown into an asylum, while Mrs. Lovett begins entertaining delusions of happily-ever-after domestic bliss with Sweeney.
Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler fashioned a darkly effective morality tale out of this descent into madness, one Logan has elegantly whittled down to two hours from three to satisfy the more concise specifications of the screen. Dialogue is present when needed, but the vast majority of the text and drama is conveyed via the songs, which themselves have sometimes been shortened — with verses removed — with little loss in impact.
Burton stages the singing sequences with precision and fluidity; as most of them are intimate one-or-two-person affairs and not production numbers in the traditional sense, he approaches them as he would dramatic scenes, in degrees of closeup and with an emphasis on content and forward movement. Music has always played a major role in his films (notably in his previous pic, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) and this represents one happy instance of a film made by a director without stage experience that genuinely serves the intentions of the original piece.
Heavy curiosity will center on how Depp, in particular, manages the vocals (all the actors performed their songs themselves). The answer is, perfectly well, thank you. The ever-resourceful thesp doesn’t take the half-measure of sing-speaking in the manner of Rex Harrison or Richard Burton, but puts across his many numbers with an agreeable voice that effectively registers the lyrics’ import.
The same goes for Bonham Carter, a similarly untrained vocalist, who works in the same vein of successfully acting her role through song. There is deeply buried emotion and charged motivations in both characters that Depp and Bonham Carter consistently express, and the eerie similarity of their looks — the endlessly dark eyes, cascading black hair, delicate facial structure, sunken cheeks, exaggerated lips, slight stature — accentuates the characters’ complicity; at one point, they are both so pale, they look like they’ve been done up in whiteface.
Another effective connection is made between Sweeney and his mortal enemy, Rickman’s hanging judge; both express the view, and justify their predisposition for meting out severe punishment, that all men have done something in their lives that make them deserve to die. It is certainly true of the two of them, no matter that one is the antihero, and the other the villain, of the piece.
The narrow, heavily deterministic and, yes, gushingly bloody nature of the show (more than enough to warrant its R rating) serves to mute the exhilaration to a degree, but producers Richard Zanuck, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald (and Sondheim, who had approval of the director and actors) deserve credit for ensuring that everyone involved on the picture was the right person for the job.