Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler based their Tony Award-winning 1979 musical version of this (possibly true) story on Christopher Bond's 1973 play, itself inspired by the eponymous 1847 original British melodrama by George Dibdin-Pitt. Now, some theater purists are up in arms because Sondheim has taken a razor to his glorious score with such onscreen cuts as "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "City on Fire," "Ah Miss," "Kiss Me," and much of "God, That's Good." Does it matter that they're gone? Of course it does, but while we don't attend the tale of Sweeney Todd aurally, we do attend it in the most sumptuous Grand Guignol visuals ever as his victims still go "to their maker impeccably shaved."
Sweeney tells the tale of Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), an innocent barber sent to prison so the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) can have his way with Barker's beautiful and virtuous wife (Laura Michelle Kelly). Fifteen years later, Barker escapes from prison. Fueled by the need for revenge, Barker returns to his former Fleet Street lodgings, where he encounters his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who still yearns for him. Together she and Barker, now called Sweeney Todd, form an unholy alliance as he wreaks his vengeance on all comers while waiting for his real victim, the Judge. Meanwhile, her pie shop flourishes with the influx of fresh meat delivered daily by Todd and his friendly razors. As a side plot, Barker's shipmate, the young sailor Anthony (Jame Campbell Bower) spies Barker's beautiful and virtuous daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener), now the Judge's ward and reluctant soon-to-be-bride, and falls instantly in love. They remain the only innocents in this tale of man-eats-man. But will they survive all the deadly, dastardly doings?
The other big question for viewers is this: Can Johnny Depp sing? Like an angelic demon (or a demonic angel) and far better than his female co-star, as it turns out. But Bonham Carter looks so right as the living corpse-bride version of Mrs. Lovett that her heaving bosoms almost make us forget her weak pipes. Together, Depp and Carter make the most star-crossed of lovers and we feel both pity and terror for them.
In the supporting roles. Rickman merely has to show up and squint to be the perfect Judge, while Timothy Spall's Beadle seems to be channeling a more villainous version of his evil henchman in Enchanted. Sacha Baron Cohen, best known to film and television audiences as his alter egos Ali G and Borat, makes a short comic diversion of the rival barber, Pirelli. As the young lovers, Bower and Wisener are adequate, as is the adolescent Ed Sanders as the young Toby, but they're just not up to the Grand Guignol style around them.
Still, the real co-star of this film is Burton's bloody, moody visual landscape. From the opening credits with rivulets of blood and chopped meat running through the filthy streets into the sewers of 19th-century London to the great gouts of blood to come, the film belongs to Burton's ghoulish vision. (Ironically, those bloody rivers recall the dark nasty chocolate rivers in the opening credits of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the only Burton/Depp failure in their half dozen films together.) Yet, as giant beetles the size of New York water bugs scuttle across the counter in "The Worst Pies in London" and a Charles Addams' cartoon family of Todd and Lovett sit sporting the latest in tacky period candy-colored beach wear in "By the Sea," we can be grateful that Sondheim entrusted the film version to Burton, Depp, and Bonham Carter. Indeed, this is a Sweeney for our age!
For TheaterMania's interview with Sweeney Todd screenwriter John Logan, click here.