MOVIE REVIEW- Barber chop: Depp takes a little off the top
If you ask Sweeney Todd to take a little off the top, you'd better be careful.
Likewise, if you ask Tim Burton to go a little over the top, you're asking for trouble.
Surprisingly, Burton has reined it in somewhat– relative to the possibilities– in his film version of Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That's not to say the gore won't send people who were hoping for a "nice" musical running for the exits, or that Sondheim's songs will appeal to fans of previous Burton-Johnny Depp collaborations which, while they may have contained some songs, weren't practically freakin' operas.
It's practically a Goth opera at that, with Depp and Helena Bonham Carter dressed mostly in black and grey with pale makeup, so most of their scenes are almost in black and white. The killings, as excessive as a Mel Gibson fantasy, are appropriate to the Grand Guignol style, which adheres closely to the stage version.
Many songs have been shortened but only a few eliminated in trimming nearly a third from the show's length. Most missed is the running choral narration, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," but it's technically redundant as we see everything it described.
The story, dating back to the mid-19th century and possibly based on earlier true events, is of a barber who returns to London after escaping an Australian prison where he was sent on false charges by a judge who hoped to steal his wife. Benjamin Barker (Depp) now calls himself Sweeney Todd, and he lives for revenge against Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman).
Sweeney moves back into his old digs above the pie shop of his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter), who has a longstanding crush on him. She tells him his wife took poison when he was sent away and the judge adopted their daughter as his ward. Johanna (Jayne Wisner) is grown now, and the judge, who has designs on her, keeps her a virtual prisoner. From her window she catches the eye and heart of Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), a young sailor who befriended Sweeney at sea. The judge beats and threatens Anthony.
With his razor, which Mrs. Lovett kept for him (or as a souvenir), back in his hand, Sweeney feels complete. He opens for business and soon has his first victim. Mrs. Lovett gets the idea, the price of meat being what it is, of disposing of the victim– and those who will follow– in her meat pies. Soon they're both doing a booming business.
Depp reveals a unexpectedly pleasant singing voice, in addition to being born to play the part. Bonham Carter has a sweet soprano sound but sings in a higher register than most Mrs. Lovetts and blends in with the strings, making her words hard to understand. Her thick Cockney accent doesn't help either, and it's a shame to waste Sondheim lyrics.
Rickman is effective as his standard villain. Has he ever played a likable character? Sacha Baron Cohen appears as the snarky Pirelli, but audiences with memories of Borat laugh at him before he does anything. He's not bad, but his history is a distraction. So is Campbell Bower's beauty. He seems more feminine than the woman he loves. He'd be well cast as Richard Chamberlain's grandson.
This isn't a great Sweeney Todd, but it's probably as good a film version as we could have hoped for. Sondheim, Burton, and Depp, like Sweeney, have "trod a path that few have trod" (sorry, that's from the missing song). It will be interesting to see how many tread the path to see this movie.