The problem with having this film be reviewed by someone like me – long a fan of Sweeney Todd on stage, as well as most films of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – is that I am foreordained to have a strong reaction to it. I'll either hate the film for reasons related to its differences from the stage play, or I'll love it and go on and on about how great it is, gushing as strongly as the slit neck of one of Mr. Todd's victims.
Well, I suppose you should run for cover, because gush I will. This film is a wonderful adaptation of the stage musical to the silver screen. It carries over the primary strengths of the play – its unique story and characters, its dark and clever humor, and of course Stephen Sondheim's amazing music – but fits them to the form of a film.
For those unfamiliar with it, the story is set in mid-19th century London. Fifteen years earlier, unscrupulous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) used trumped-up charges to unjustly sentence a young barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) to a life of hard labor. He did this so he could seduce/defile the barber's beautiful and virtuous wife, after whom he lusted. The film begins as an embittered and vengeful Barker returns to London under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd to learn the fate of his wife Lucy and daughter Joanna, and to seek revenge against Judge Turpin. To his horror, he learns from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) – who recognizes him as the young barber on whom she had a crush all those years ago – that his wife ended up taking poison as a result of what happened, and that his daughter has ever since lived as the ward of the corrupt lech, Turpin! Driven toward madness by the knowledge, Barker/Todd determines that his revenge lies at the intersection of his barber's razor and Turpin's throat. But until he can bring that about, he will content himself to "practice" his revenge on miscellaneous tonsorial patrons that won't be missed. And the "eminently practical" Mrs. Lovett – who herself has more than one screw loose – decides she may as well use the results of Mr. Todd's "hobby" as fodder for her meat pie business, what with the price of more "traditional" meat being what it is…
Any new version of the story will necessarily be compared against the 1982 stage version starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, which has been shown on TV for decades and is, happily, available on DVD. (Though I believe the play actually started in 1979 on Broadway, I tend to think of this 1982 version as “the original stage version”.) I will always remember and love the powerful voice and wrathful stage presence of Hearn's Mr. Todd, as well the quirky motherliness of Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett.
But now I can also savor Depp's and Bonham Carter's portrayals of these memorable characters. (As well as Alan Rickman's Judge Turpin.) For me, Depp adds a touch more vulnerability to Todd's wrathfulness, as well as a hint more quiet menace. He seems slightly less – I'm not sure what word to use – aristocratic (?) than did Hearn, and so more indentifiable as an average man whose soul has been twisted by horrendous circumstances. (Beyond the inevitable – and absolutely appropriate – differences between separate actors' interpretations, I imagine that this is at least partially due to the variant nature of movies and plays, especially when it comes to musicals. The cinematic format, with its moveable camera, close-ups, and so forth, can sometimes allow a degree of intimacy with the characters which is not so readily afforded by the theatrical format. Even in the midst of a song, for example, the camera can zoom in to reveal the nuance in an actor's expression. In theatre, on the other hand, a certain broadness seems de rigueur, and even a whisper must be delivered with booming resonance to reach the back row.)
Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett offers a worthy foil to Depp's Mr. Todd. Apparently half-nuts more by nature than circumstances, this widow offers a bizarre confluence of near-wholesomeness and amoral practicality. The former shows through with her oddly off-kilter desire for a husband and family, and the latter with her willingness to go along with murder – and turn much of London into unwitting cannibals – because of her need to revive her failing business (and to please the "beautiful" Mr. Todd, on whom she casts a needful eye).
As the lecherous Judge Turpin, Alan Rickman ably combines sanctimony and moral corruption. And Timothy Spall's Beadle Bamford is suitably smarmy and unctuous. The rest of the supporting cast is generally fine, if not particularly memorable. (Though I'm sure Sacha Baron Cohen's portrayal of the barber/con man Pirelli will be remembered fondly by many.)
Given that this is a musical, the quality of the singing must maintain at least a certain level. And I am pleased to say that it does. I don't think anyone will try to claim that Depp's voice is as powerful as George Hearn's, but it is surprisingly rich and fully sufficient to the task. (And I particularly like the touch of a cockney accent he effects at certain points.) Similarly, Bonham Carter and Rickman manage to hold their notes adequately while staying in character. The lower-level supporting characters – notably Joanna and her sailor suitor – may be the strongest singers of the lot, and I would hazard a guess that they may have had the most extensive musical training. But I must confess that I found Joanna's birdlike voice a tad annoying.
The look of the film is distinctive and evocative. Shades of gray and grayish blue dominate Burton's color pallete, as if the world were in a perpetual state of meloncholy or despair. (Notable exceptions include the warm golden hues of Todd's flashback to his happy life with his wife, and the deliberately overexposed, almost acidic, look during Mrs. Lovett's unbalanced fantasy of a vacation "by the beautiful sea".) The costumes and sets (including what I imagine are computer graphics of the cityscape) emphasize the grit and grime of mid-19th century London. And the makeup for Depp and Bonham Carter, in particular, emphasizes an unhealthy pallor in the face and a sunkenness in the eyes, as if to hint at the wounded souls inside. (This might also be a small homage to the televised stage play, where this type of makeup was in strong evidence.)
With regard to the inevitable blood: We certainly see enough of it in this film. But all considered, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised that we didin’t see more. Burton could have taken the “too much is never enough” tack so prevalent in a lot of movies, and gone completely over the top. But instead, he presents us with enough blood to be affecting without distracting from the performances.
The story as presented in the film hews closely to that of the stage production, but with a few adjustments as to how it is presented. Some of the changes, I imagine, are made for pacing, while others are necessary to accommodate the different conventions of stage and screen. An example of the former might be the dropping of the sequence wherein Mr. Todd trains the sailor in what he’ll need to know to infiltrate the asylum. An example of the latter is the dropping of the final “Ballad Of Sweeney Todd” song, sung by the entire cast, immediately before the final curtain falls. (Such a song absolutely works in theatre. But it really has no good equivalent in film, where an actual stage is not present.)
Given its dark and bloody subject matter, this film will never be marketed as a “feel-good hit” of any season. But given how well it works in terms of its cathartic release, its dark humor, and its engaging music, it almost could be. And that says a lot right there.
Note: This review is based on a “sneak peak” preview. Certain changes may have been incorporated by the time of full theatrical release.
Rated R for graphic bloody violence.
This film opens Dec 21st.
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Slim is a Cleveland based writer for On Top Magazine and can be reached at email@example.com.