Of all the things that get cut in Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton’s faithful filming of the superlative Stephen Sondheim musical, the only one that doesn’t bleed is the title song.
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” the stage production begins and ends, words nowhere to be sung in Burton’s sanguinary film. It’s the only hummable tune in the show, and I understand why it’s gone: It’s also the most “theatrical” piece, performed by an omniscient ensemble, whereas the rest of the songs are integral to specific characters.
Still, Burton keeps his Sweeney Todd as stage-bound as possible without merely filming a play. It’s visually arresting, with filthy 1840s London locations that almost don’t look like elaborate studio sets. The leading players wear exaggerated pasty-white makeup, with black patches to accentuate their sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. The camera moves only when it has to, not because it can, and the score fills the auditorium with orchestral thunder.
And yet, unlike a musical on stage, you can hear every word distinctly. The blood flows more freely, too, whereas this much liquid would probably cause theater actors to slip and hurt themselves. So Burton’s film is an interesting hybrid, at once his and Sondheim’s.
The story, of course, revolves around the vengeful eponymous barber (Johnny Depp), who kills his customers and drops them down a chute so that Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) can bake them into her meat pies, which were the scourge of London until she found this abundant source of fresh tender meat.
Sweeney is not without motive: Many years earlier, a powerful judge (Alan Rickman) raped his virtuous wife at one of his bacchanals while the revelers cheered, then had her naïve husband thrown in jail. The judge took in the couple’s infant daughter as his ward. Now she’s a blossoming young woman, and as a young sailor falls in love at first note with her, Todd sets out to avenge his wife’s degradation by luring the judge into his lethal chair.
It’s all highly entertaining, although our culture wasn’t exactly crying out to be reminded of Sondheim’s 1979 masterwork. An impressive Depp sings solidly, if not with the resonance of the actors (Len Cariou, George Hearn) who played the role on stage. Bonham Carter, perfectly creepy and dryly funny, seems to be acting like a singer as well, with decidedly mixed (and occasionally ear-piercing) results. Sacha Baron Cohen is splendid as a rival barber with a fake Italian accent and a bulging crotch, and young Ed Sanders is adorable as an orphaned kid who gets drawn into the maelstrom.
The point of it all, made over and over, is that the world is a cesspool of shit, and everyone deserves to die. And yet, you don’t exactly leave Sweeney Todd feeling bad about anything. That’s because Burton has always been a dilettante existentialist who really has a heart. As for Sondheim, who can say?
Starts Fri., Dec. 21.