(No longer in theaters)
Drama, Musical, Suspense/Thriller
Richard D. Zanuck, Walter Parkes
Dec 21, 2007
Once you get past the absence of the immortal “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (hard) and the fact that the leads, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, have little in the way of pipes (harder), Tim Burton’s film of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is spellbinding. Most directors open up Broadway musicals—adding meaningless busyness—to make them more “cinematic,” and they end up diluting them. Burton, bless him, constricts the space and concentrates the melodrama; he finds the perfect balance between the funereal and the ferocious. Above all, he treasures these ghouls: He digs both their bloodlust and their melancholy. You can imagine the moment he decided to make the movie: “Edward Scissorhands is out for revenge, with no time for topiary! He cuts hair and throats!”
When I say Depp has no pipes, I don’t mean his singing is terrible. He hits the notes. And the demon barber of Fleet Street doesn’t need a gorgeous voice—Michael Cerveris, as grand a Sweeney as ever swung a razor, sometimes bellowed. What the role does need is power. When Depp sings, “I will have vengeance,” there’s no air behind the words, and the few times he lets loose he replicates that awful quavery head-voice of Anthony Newley. But Burton has scaled Sweeney Todd to his favorite leading man. He shoots the actor in tender close-up, and Sweeney sings to himself, not the audience. Depp has the right morbidity, the right commitment (insofar as he seems, as an actor, both principled and certifiable). His eyes are dark hollows and his hair is swept back with a white stripe, like the bride of Frankenstein’s and Humphrey Bogart’s vampire’s in The Return of Dr. X—the stinker Bogie fans try to forget but Burton and Depp, I’m sure, remember with glee.
Burton took some heat over the casting of Bonham Carter, his girlfriend and the mother of his children, as Mrs. Lovett, the baker of the “worst pies in London” who has the bright, frugal idea of substituting Sweeney’s victims for the dead cats she normally uses. But Burton would have been insane to put someone with a big voice or theater chops (Meryl Streep, say) opposite Depp. Bonham Carter and Depp both have strangled little voices; they’re a match. And if Burton loves Johnny, he fetishizes Helena. Black-haired, white-skinned Vampira corpse brides with Day of the Dead eyes: If there were a Playghoul magazine, Burton would shoot the centerfolds. I thought it was a bad idea to make Mrs. Lovett—usually a crone—a plausible romantic partner for Sweeney, but Bonham Carter’s sarcophageal eroticism (that cleavage!) adds another layer. Mrs. Lovett is a sociopath but not delusional. The throwaway number “By the Sea,” in which Lovett fantasizes about her bucolic future with Sweeney, is now a hilarious highlight. Even in her pipe dreams, Sweeney stares out of dead eyes, dreaming of throats to be cut.
It should be said that Burton’s approach doesn’t just suit his stars; it suits the material. I hated Harold Prince’s original production. Sondheim is on the record as loathing Brecht, but Prince went for a Berliner Ensemble effect—too wide and unfocused a canvas. I didn’t fully appreciate Sweeney Todd until I saw the Circle in the Square revival with Bob Gunton—a penny dreadful with a score that exploded out of its Grand Guignol frame. John Doyle’s revelatory production with Cerveris and Patti LuPone proved that Sweeney Todd had enough blood in its veins to transcend even a chill, Marat/Sade-like stylization. Burton finds a middle ground between Doyle and the Grand Guignol. And oh, the blood. It geysers out, bright red, against the sooty, monochromatic sets. It’s South Park arterial spray—Burton’s way of cackling, “You’re a long way from the Met, folks!”
Alan Rickman as the foul voluptuary judge and Timothy Spall as an especially repulsive Beadle Bamford have no better voices than Depp or Bonham Carter, but it’s always nice to see them, and as the young lovers, Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener take up the vocal slack. The kid, Ed Sanders, splits the difference between Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger and has a sweet voice—maybe too sweet, since he blows Bonham Carter away in their duet. It’s a good thing Signor Adolfo Pirelli is a small part or the peerless Sacha Baron Cohen would have ruined the film: His flamboyance makes his co-stars look anemic. As for the loss of the ballad: The music is there (under the credits), but Burton deemed the number too self-consciously theatrical an opening. He might have been right, but he should have found a way to end with it, if only for the orchestral flourish that caps Sweeney Todd with a ghoulish exclamation point.