Tim Burton’s elegantly nasty adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s play SWEENEY TODD is a gloriously macabre achievement. Burton, ever the visual artist, has crafted one of the best films of his career, and one of the best films of the year with SWEENEY TODD. His sixth collaboration with Johnny Depp, the film is a horror-musical hybrid that boasts brooding cinematography, crisp editing, amazing production design, and terrific song lyrics as well as a rich story. Having seen the play once off Broadway and already a big fan of Burton’s previous work, I went into the screening expecting something fun and different; what I got was a perverse masterwork that sent me out of the theater singing and ready to experience it all again. And having seen the film twice now, I can say that it’s one of my favorite films of the year.
Depp is Benjamin Barker, an everyday barber living with his family in London. We learn, through colorful flashbacks, that Barker’s beautiful wife and child were stolen from him by the jealous Judge Turpin (the always awesome Alan Rickman) who fancied Barker’s wife. Sent away to an Australian prison, Barker illegally returns to London looking to exact his revenge on Turpin and his cronies. Once back on British soil, Barker is no more; Sweeney Todd is born. And he’s more than a little mad when he’s told that his wife has poisoned herself. Todd meets Mrs. Lovett (the underrated Helena Bonham Carter), the owner of a struggling meat-pie shop, and the two of them form a strange bond. Working again as a barber, Todd sets up shop above Lovett’s restaurant, and a unique partnership is formed. Todd needs practice killing people with his straight-edge razor and Lovett’s meat-pies are in need of a makeover. So, naturally, Todd’s victims become Lovett’s ingredients. Yum-yum. Meanwhile, Todd’s estranged daughter Joanna is being looked and lusted after by Turpin; he wants to marry her. Joanna catches the eye of an eager young sailor named Anthony (one of Todd’s shipmates) and he devises a plan to run away with her. Todd cuts his way to revenge, slicing and dicing people’s throats with glee and Lovett’s restaurant has a resurgence of business. The finale, which I dare not spoil, seals the fate of every character in a bloody pool of catharsis that the audience feels as well. And oh yeah, everyone sings. I almost forgot to mention that.
Starting with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and continuing on with radical, surreal fantasies like BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, MARS ATTACKS!, SLEEPY HOLLOW, BIG FISH, and CHARLIE & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Burton has long been considered one of the premier visualists working in the business. Never a particularly violent filmmaker (SLEEPY HOLLOW notwithstanding), the Grand Guignol of SWEENEY TODD is impressive to say the least. And who knew he’d be as intuitively aware of the demands of the musical genre that he is. I’d expect something this macabre from a filmmaker like Brian De Palma but not necessarily from Burton. The over-the-top arterial sprays in SWEENEY TODD are a horror fan’s dream and a squeamish person’s nightmare. Burton is in complete control of his craft with SWEENEY TODD; it’s one of the best pieces of directing he’s ever done. The fabulous craftspeople that he’s assembled are all working at the top of their games as well. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who also shot all three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films with Depp, is a genius. Giving the film an intense, nearly monochromatic look and draining it of any bright colors (except during a few stunningly beautiful fantasy sequences), Wolski and Burton have created an imposingly mean looking film. Dante Ferretti’s richly detailed sets and Colleen Atwood’s perfect costumes also up the ante.
But in a musical, the performances can only be as good as the singing, and it’s here that SWEENEY TODD surprises the most. Depp absolutely nails the singing, and while it’s obvious that he’s not a classically trained crooner, he’s a natural. Coming off as an ultra-dark rock star, it’s one of Depp’s finest performances. Carter, for her part, is also excellent, and while at times a little shaky with the singing voice, her precise acting qualities serve her character well. These are nasty, murderous, and manipulative characters, and it’s a testament to the actors that I was rooting for them the entire time. Rickman is one of the screen’s classiest villains and can also carry a tune. Even Sascha Baron Cohen (aka Borat) shows up for a delicious cameo that sent both crowds into hysterics.
SWEENEY TODD is an ultra-bloody and ultra-beautiful film that will turn off as many people as it delights. Not for the faint of heart, it’s a film that is both ugly and gorgeous, both physically and spiritually, often at the same time. The depths of human despair that are explored in the narrative go all the way back to Shakespeare, and John Logan’s screenplay and lyrics crackle with authenticity and cynicism. And the film’s tragic finale and unforgettable final shots are pure movie magic, a celebration of death and re-birth. A vision like this could only come from a filmmaker as exacting as Burton. Exciting, ferocious, and oddly moving by the end, SWEENEY TODD is a masterful piece of filmmaking that ranks as one of the year’s best films.