I came to Sweeney Todd with a clean slate, as it were. I’d never seen any of the previous stage or screen versions, and I’m generally adverse to the archly ironic style of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.
All of that said, I was thoroughly delighted by director Tim Burton’s version of the story. As with Burton’s best work, it’s moviemaking at its Grand Guignol finest.
For those even more ignorant of the story than I waws, Johnny Depp plays the title role, or should I say evolves into it. Initially, his character is named Benjamin Barker, and he’s a happily married father in Victorian London.
But an evil judge named Turpin (Alan Rickman at his oil-slick smoothest) lusts after Barker’s wife. So he wrongly sentences Barker to prison, seduces and poisoningly induces Barker’s wife, and takes Barker’s baby daughter as his “charge,” to await the day when she is old enough to marry him.
Fifteen years later, Barker escapes from prison, returns to London, and adopts the persona of barber Sweeney Todd. At first, he intends only upon avenging Turpin. But he soon discovers he has an other-barberly way with a razor. And as it happens, Todd’s landlady (Helena Bonham Carter), an unsuccessful baker, could use some fresh ingredients to sell her pies.
Oh, and this is a musical, too — albeit the bloodiest musical ever, with shot after shot of Todd severing the necks of bourgeois customers whom he feels have it coming.
So why do I heartily recommend such a gruesome offering? For one thing, the script (by John Logan, an avid Todd buff) and Burton’s elegant direction take the story its bare bones, with vivid characterization and crisp plotting and timing.
Of course, the actors contribute much as well. And every last one of them — including Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat business turned me off — sing and act wonderfully, taking some of the sting off the movie’s black-comedy ickiness.
Johnny Depp, again, takes major chances and scores. The feyness of Burton/Depp collaborations such as Ed Wood and Willie Wonka is gone. In its place is Todd’s grisly dark confidence and rationality of his murdering ways — the ultimate depiction of the maxim “Be careful what you wish for.”
Its dark themes aside, Sweeney Todd was 2007’s entry in an apparent renaissance of the movie musical — and justifiably so.