Thanks to Depp, 'Todd' Retains Its Flavor Despite a Trim
The other shocker: The film's really good. Director Tim Burton has found the right look and, more crucially, the right scale for his film version of the grandiose 1979 Broadway musical thriller. It is a weirdly intimate piece—a big show compressed down to chamber musical size, as it has often been reduced on stage. Visually Burton and his brilliant designers don't try to compete with the mad excess of the narrative. It is the director's best and most carefully considered effort in many a project. And in his sixth collaboration with Burton, the actor Johnny Depp, who stars as the vengeance-minded 19th Century London barber, proves his range, his nerve and his ability to use a light but confident baritone voice, with a pop edge, to surprising dramatic ends.
This is a musical. Are we clear on that? The early trailers put out by Warner Bros. and DreamWorks certainly weren't. Also, without spoiling any narrative business, it's fair warning to note that the chord Burton chooses to go out on with "Sweeney Todd" is about the grimmest and least cathartic imaginable. If you're looking for "You Can't Stop the Beat," you have come to the wrong hair musical.
But if you're at all interested in the form—it's been a good year for screen musicals, in fact, what with "Once" and "Hairspray" and the loony home-movie-musical "Romance & Cigarettes"—and if you're curious about seeing work guided by music and lyrics from the finest practitioner of his craft not, for once, messed up on screen, "Sweeney Todd" offers potent and insinuating satisfactions.
First introduced in the serialized newspaper cliffhanger "The String of Pearls," Todd's exploits have long haunted the English-language imagination. Here, screenwriter John Logan has taken the essentials from the musical libretto by Hugh Wheeler—there's not much of it; Sondheim's titanic score verges on the operatic—and focused the piece on a handful of characters.
Sent to Australia on trumped-up charges, Todd returns to London with the help of the young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower). Todd's nemesis, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, who can purr the phrase "you have gandered at my ward" like no one else), engineered Todd's removal in order to get at his pretty young bride. Now, years later, the bride is apparently dead and Todd's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is now Turpin's ward and unwilling bride-to-be. Seething from the get-go, the barber learns of the judge's nefarious scheme and of his accomplice in sleaze, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall in great big ratty teeth).
Capitalism being the best route to revenge, Todd reopens his barber shop above the pie emporium of Mrs. Lovett. She's played by Helena Bonham Carter, who offers a fascinating and very delicate portrait in misbegotten love. She is drawn to Todd; life is, after all, an Industrial Age hell, no sunshine, no pleasure. Even a monomaniacal serial killer is someone. The way Bonham Carter (who is director Burton's partner in real life) and Depp treat their many scenes and songs together, it's whispery, conspiratorial. The dynamics of their interplay aren't like the dynamics in most screen musicals.
If Bonham Carter's singing voice had more heft "Sweeney Todd" would be practically unstoppable, a dark force of nature. As fine an actress as she is, though, she's only adequate when it comes to Sondheim's demands. (She may not have been coached correctly: Why not bite off the lyrics in the patter classic "The Worst Pies in London," instead of going all legato on the thing?) Sacha Baron Cohen is no great shakes vocally as Todd's rival barber, Pirelli, but he's lucky: His big song ("The Contest") adapts well to this new tempo and an average singer's attack. And like his cohorts, Cohen happens to be an excellent screen actor with comic and dramatic wiles to spare.
Production designer Dante Ferretti's grimy, charcoal-gray streets and facades of a pitiless London recall John Box's sets for the 1968 film version of "Oliver!" if you took all the color out of both the streets and every urchin's face. Mrs. Lovett's day-dreamy "By the Sea" is the film's sole relief from Burton's aesthetic, and here the designs are spectacularly funny—a series of Victorian postcards sent from a vacation destined never to be taken.
The casting of the youthful Depp and Bonham Carter necessitated going very young in the secondary roles. Thus Tobias, Pirelli's put-upon slave adopted by Mrs. Lovett, is now a full-on preteen (or close) moppet, royally handled by Ed Sanders. It's striking to hear songs of devotion coming from such a moppet, and Burton finesses his duet with Bonham Carter, "Not While I'm Around," just so. He also keeps the self-conscious camera gymnastics to a minimum: He's having fun with the material, but he doesn't want to let the audience off the hook. The soundstage sets, unlike the sets for Burton's "Sleepy Hollow," aren't meant to suggest a speck of actual outdoor daylight, but unlike many a previous screen musical ("Guys and Dolls" comes to mind) the theatrical artifice doesn't stifle the atmosphere. It unlocks it. And Burton's boldest strokes are on the money—the last time we see Mrs. Lovett on screen is a moment 20 times as effective as its stage counterpart.
It won't be for all tastes, which is the understatement of the year. The film casts a mighty spell of doom. Sondheim's music, superbly orchestrated and played, sounds marvelous as lush Bernard Herrmann-inspired underscoring (the little-known "Hangover Square" score was an early inspiration, Sondheim claims) as well as in full melody and lyrics. And unlike "No Country For Old Men," the other finely crafted movie about a serial killer out there stalking the nation's theaters, this one offers no release from its grip, no dying-fall monologue from a sympathetic character. "Sweeney Todd" may haunt you in ways you're not used to with a movie musical. At least not since "Mame."
Get showtimes and movie details for "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."