I'm going to cut right to the chase: Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a thrilling piece of cinema, nothing less than a masterwork. Who else but Tim Burton could have truly done justice to Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece?
The success of the film hinges on its two central performances: Johnny Depp as Sweeney and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. In the vocal department, well, they're no great shakes, although Depp comes off slightly better. Depp possesses a soulful wail, Bonham Carter a wistful, slightly off-pitch penny whistle. But somehow, the vocal limitations become secondary to the two laser-sharp performances. As I've said before, Depp and Bonham Carter are two of the finest actors of my generation, and in every scene they demonstrate mastery of their craft.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Alan Rickman is remarkable, as always, and brings a suitably menacing and credibly creepy quality to his portrayal of Judge Turpin. Timothy Spall is likewise superb as the deliciously slimy Beadle Bamford, and showcases his trademark nuance and depth in what could have been a cardboard role.
But Tim Burton is certainly one of the stars of this movie, particularly via his signature visual style: there's a soot-covered, gaunt, fetid feel to the entire movie. Compelling, too, are Burton's dynamic and illuminating camera angles. The camera never seems to sit still, just as Sweeney's vengeful mind is never idle for a moment. Burton does a masterful job building tension throughout the movie, particularly impressive to me in that I've seen the show MANY times in various forms (the original Broadway production, the concert version, the Broadway revival, the national tour of same, etc.)
Burton achieves a good deal of this tension by making significant cuts in the score, both in terms of entire numbers excised ("Ah, Miss," "City on Fire," "Parlor Songs," etc.) and shortened versions of remaining numbers. Sondheim purists will no doubt balk, but I'm convinced that the shorter form actually made the piece more effective, more compelling, and ultimately more terrifying. The various versions of "Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd" have been cut, but this is understandable, given the inherent, Brechtian theatricality of those songs. Burton maintains the melody as underscoring, a recurring leitmotif that accents a ruminating Sweeney. The slightly trimmed "A Little Priest" as Todd and Lovett stare out the shop window and "select" their pie flavors from the "menu" of passersby is a monstrous joy, and one of the few light moments in an otherwise grim succession.
Because, make no mistake: this is a gruesome, graphic, gut-wrenching movie. Burton doesn't shy away from showing in full color (well, red, for the most part) the true extent of Todd's and Lovett's horrific crimes. From the very first murder, Burton makes it clear that this won't be stylized violence, but rather full-on gore.
Burton's concept for casting seems to have been to skew the entire cast younger than those that we've witnessed in the various stage versions. Apparently he wanted most of the cast to seem younger than Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, both of whom are in their early forties, but could certainly pass for younger. Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony is a little slip of a girlie boy, aged 19. Ed Sanders as Toby can't be more than eleven or twelve. Both actors took a bit of getting used to, but eventually they won me over. There's really not a single weak performance in the movie. Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, THAT Sacha Baron Cohen: Ali G and Borat) didn't impress me as Pirelli at first, but when he comes to blackmail Todd and gets his comeuppance, he redeemed himself quite nicely.
[SPOILER ALERT: STOP READING HERE IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN THE SHOW AND DON'T WANT TO SPOIL THE ENDING.]
Burton employs two significant flashbacks, one to show Benjamin Barker being stolen away from his wife and child, and one to show Lucy being tricked and raped by the judge. The first is a bit twee and unnecessary, but the second really helps establish the menace of the judge character. Another problem with the flashback is that we get a strong sense of what Lucy looks like, which makes things a bit harder on Burton when he has to introduce the beggar woman without revealing her identity. Minor quibbles, to be sure.
The entire movie builds to a shattering climax, made all the more visceral by Burton's graphic approach. Mrs. Lovett's death is especially horrifying: Burton shows the character catching on fire and languishing in the flames as Todd stares maniacally on. Burton also employs some heart-breaking touches as Todd discovers what he's done to his beloved Lucy. One significant change Burton makes from the stage version is that the Toby character witnesses all of the hideous events from a sewer grate, and rather than going insane, he emerges angry and seeking vengeance.
The result of all of Burton's efforts is quite simply the best movie musical in decades, an absolute tour-de-force. Go see this movie. Multiple times. I just might see you there.