by Jeff Meyers
Peace on Earth, schmeace on Earth. 'Tis the season for cannibalism and bloodletting. Is Hollywood waging war on Christmas? How else to explain holiday releases like I Am Legend and the soon-to-be yuletide classic: Alien vs. Predator: Requiem? Dreamworks and Warner Brothers must be confident that audiences are dying to see a winter wonderland splashed with a little crimson, as Tim Burton's throat-slitting horror musical gets released at Christmastime.
Adapted from Stephen Sondheim's quasi-operatic, "penny dreadful" revenge tragedy, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is probably the most visually audacious musical to hit screens since Moulin Rouge. Boasting fantastic sets, gorgeous costumes and impossibly rhapsodic camera moves, it's every bit as bombastic as Baz Luhrmann's cinematic tour de force but, unfortunately, not nearly as kinetic.
Burton, Sondheim and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator) have stripped this award-winning 1979 musical to its gripping but gory essentials, spinning a dark and claustrophobic tale of how a barber's plans for revenge spin horribly out of control. More a story of mood and character than plot, Logan has all but removed Sondheim's social commentary about the underclass and turned it into a freakish ode to nihilism and corruption. Though it revels in Burton's obsessions —macabre wit and gothic melodrama — it's missing the eccentric director's trademark empathy for the outsider.
Young Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) had the world in the palm of his hands. A promising barber with a beautiful wife and infant daughter, his life was snatched away when the depraved Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) had him falsely arrested and exiled in order to sleep with his betrothed. Returning to grimy smokestacks of Victorian London 15 years later under the name of Sweeney Todd, Barker learns that his wife poisoned herself and his teenage daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), has become Turpin's ward. Worse, the malignant old judge plans to marry the young girl.
Driven mad with rage, Sweeney opens for business above Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bohnam Carter) Meat Pie Shop where he plots his bloody revenge. Soon the crazed barber and adoring pie baker have formed a sinister partnership, murdering the rich and grinding them into increasingly popular meat pies. All is prelude for the carnage to come: the demise of Turpin and his henchman (Timothy Spall) and the awful twists of fate that will damn Sweeney to hell.
As you might expect, Burton fills the screen with a sumptuously somber look, presenting London as a nightmarish metropolis of dank and spidery alleyways and Grand Guignol violence. Despite his successes as a director, Burton is a graphic artist at heart and here he's found the perfect vehicle for his Edward Gorey sensibilities; from its magnificently bloody credits to its ghoulish characters, Sweeney Todd is a triumph of pulp-horror stylization.
The cast is similarly excellent. Depp adds yet another bizarre creation to his filmography, delivering his songs with a pleasing tenor. Bonham Carter is more tentative in her vocal delivery but infuses her crazed Mrs. Lovett with a surprising amount of humanity. Alan Rickman is deliciously nasty as the villain among villains, spitting out lyrics in an appealingly scratchy baritone and Sacha Baron Cohen predictably chews the scenery as a foppish rival barber. Only unknowns Jayne Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower (as the young lovers) fail to make a lasting impression.
Still, as effectively over-the-top and generally excellent as the film is, Burton misses the opportunity to really cut loose. Maybe it's the unrelenting inhumanity of Sweeney or a fear of crossing into camp, but this twisted Jacobean tale of revenge never hits the fevered hysteria of a Greek tragedy or the unnerving humor of black-hearted comedy. Burton keeps such a tight hold on the reins that when Sweeney's final descent into violence rolls around you wonder if you should chuckle or gasp.
Burton's a bit hamstrung when it comes to Sondheim's same-sounding musical numbers (far from his best). When the story's exposition is replaced with song (as musicals are wont to do), the already slow-to-action narrative begins to crawl. Part of this is because none of the songs have been updated or revitalized and part of it is Burton's static staging. Depp and Bonham Carter's duet "Epiphany," for example, amounts to little more than staring out a window. The grotesquely wistful "By the Sea" is as close as we come to a showstopper. Burton has an uncanny sense of mise-en-scéne that serves the musical numbers dutifully but not particularly gleefully.
Unlike Oscar-baiting musicals of late (Chicago, Dreamgirls, etc.), it's doubtful that a song and dance production about a throat-slitting serial killer will generate the same kind of award-winning buzz. Still, with its deliriously violent plot and uncompromisingly bleak ending, Sweeney Todd is a ravishing and haunting work of theater.