It's tempting to say that, in making its way from the stage to the screen, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been slashed to bits, ground into hamburger and served up as so many meat pies. That, of course, was what happened to the victims of Sweeney Todd, the tonsorial bogeyman who has haunted London's dream life for over 150 years. But it doesn't quite describe what has happened to Stephen Sondheim's musical, which has been delighting and disgusting audiences for nearly 30. Those who consider it their sacred duty to keep lit the eternal flame marking Sondheim's contribution to the American musical may leave the movie theater mumbling and grumbling. They certainly won't leave humming the melodies. But director Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp serving as his Igor once again, has brought something dark and strange squirming to life.
He had me at hello, an opening-credits sequence in which droplets of blood fall from the sky, trickle into pools, then flow through the sewer's rat-infested circulatory system. Burton has always had a taste for the gothic, and Sweeney Todd, which draws on the old penny dreadfuls, was therefore made to order. But this is the first time that Burton, who's always seemed a little squeamish at the sight of blood, has gotten his feet wet. The throat-slittings, when they arrive, are veritable gushers, the carotid artery releasing a spray of fine mist, then a splatter of viscous globules, then the thick impasto of a person drowning in his own blood. And later we're escorted through the people-into-pie process as if we were on a factory tour, which we are, of course. Dog-eat-dog capitalism, with its belching smokestacks, is one of the musical's targets.
Less so for the movie version, which forswears Brechtian satire, with all its distancing effects, in favor of gothic melodrama. On stage, Sweeney has about as much personality as Brecht's Mack the Knife. He's a killing machine, so bent on revenge he's prepared to slit the throats of every man in London to make sure he gets the one he's after. But Depp, though he does keep his distance from us, also offers us a peek into Sweeney's tortured soul. This is a man who was grabbed off the street and sent to prison so that the judge might have his way with the beautiful wife left behind, and Depp never lets us forget that. But it's also a man who's gone around the bend, and Depp appears to be having the time of his life, leering and sneering and generally comporting himself like a well-glazed ham of the Victorian stage.
The singing? It's surprisingly okay, even rather rousing at times. Sondheim's music and lyrics are notoriously difficult to negotiate - all those inner rhymes and rhythms, those melody lines trailing off (or soaring up) into dissonance. And Sweeney Todd is pretty much through-sung, which means the vocal cords rarely get a break. But Depp, who's never had any formal musical training, walks into this maelstrom like Little Red Riding Hood wandering into the woods, and he always seems to find his way out of trouble. This is not the thunderous Sweeney Todd, hurling lightning bolts at the back row, but it isn't an effete Sweeney Todd either, Ichabod Crane from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Depp gets everything he can out of his limited vocal range, his rather small voice, and closes the gap with acting chops and charisma.
Helena Bonham Carter, as the cheerfully amoral Mrs. Lovett, fares much worse. The cheerfulness is gone, for one thing. Mrs. Lovett, whose idea it is to apply Sweeney's murderous rage to her own meat-shortage problem, is one of the great characters in the history of musical theater, a woman who'd have you over for lunch, then have you under by dinner. But Carter, who looks like the Bride of Frankenstein before the jolt of electricity, doesn't seem to want to have any fun with the role, and that's all the role is: pure, wicked fun. Visually, she and Depp match up so well they could be brother and sister. And her weariness does bring a bit of depth to a character not known for it in the past. But the singing is so pallid as to barely register a pulse. What's the use of making a musical if nobody can sing?
A good question, one that Burton actually manages to work up an answer to. For Sweeney Todd, the demonic barber, has now been added to his rogue's gallery of misunderstood geniuses, alongside Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Willy Wonka, even Pee-wee Herman. And the world that Burton has created for Sweeney to ply his trade in is both rich and mysterious, a madhatter's ball where it's every man for himself and every encounter a close shave. The movie is so drained of color it's practically in black-and-white (and red). And the music, no matter how it's sung, contributes to the strangeness. When Depp first breaks into song, we can almost feel our hearts sink. But by the time he's through singing, we're forever lost in a love-starved world where you eat what you can and you are what you eat.