Prime Cut


Several seasons into the post-2001 millennium, it’s apparent that the long-moribund Hollywood musical returns to life each December in the form of a single prospective Oscar nominee. Still, as effectively overwrought and generally excellent as it is, Tim Burton’s R-rated Sweeney Todd seems unlikely to be this year’s Chicago or Dreamgirls.

For one thing, this particular walking corpse is actually a movie about a walking corpse. For another, there’s that most un-Yuletide serial-killer premise of Stephen Sondheim’s great 1979 show, a miasmic tale of Victorian London in which a vengeful barber carves up his customers who, butchered and baked into pies by his adoring landlady, are eagerly devoured by a foul lot of greedy customers.

Burton has taken Sondheim’s quasi-operatic, mock-penny-dreadful exercise in Dickensian-Brechtian Grand Guignol as the pretext for something highly personal and typically obsessive. From its magnificently gory credits to its climactic bloodbath pietà, the director makes it clear that this is his meat. As much as he’s a filmmaker, Burton is also a graphic artist in the tradition of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey—and here he’s successfully incorporated Sweeney Todd into his own distinctively dank and spidery gothic world.

Sweeney Todd
is a movie of bombastic, impossible camera moves and rhapsodic yuckiness. Burton can’t resist filling the screen with scuttling vermin or surges of splatterific violence. Sweeney Todd has been made with actors—Burton axioms Johnny Depp as the demon barber, and Helena Bonham Carter playing his accomplice Mrs. Lovett—but, as hyper-designed as the production is, it’s only a few stop-motion stutter-steps away from the puppet animation of The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride.

Depp’s Sweeney is an icon, a fiery-eyed, razor-brandishing cadaver with a mad Pagliacci glare. Bonham Carter is comparably corpse-like—a matched composition in bird-nest hairdo, death-pallor complexion, and heavily shadowed eyes. This ghoulishly attractive couple is supported by a suitable gang of gargoyles, including Alan Rickman as Sweeney’s doppelgänger—the malignant magistrate responsible for wrecking his life—and, as the judge’s henchman, Timothy Spall, who even sings. A foppish Sacha Baron Cohen bursts on-screen as Sweeney’s rival Pirelli—reveling in the opportunity for gross ethnic impersonation as he maximizes every celluloid second.

Sondheim evidently approved the casting, although the singing is barely more than adequate. Depp has a pleasing, if untrained, tenor but Bonham Carter’s sweetly tentative voice has none of the coarse vitality that the original Mrs. Lovett, Angela Lansbury, brought to the role. Still, the numbers are so inventively staged that two of Bonham Carter’s key songs—the cannibal waltz “A Little Priest” and the grotesquely wistful “By the Sea”—brought down the house at the preview I attended. Burton manages to open up the play even as he stylizes it, choreographing scenes in bedlam and the sewers, as well as the vacation resort of Mrs. Lovett’s febrile imagination. Possibly not since Vincente Minnelli has anyone directed a musical with such absolute mise-en-scéne.

As great as Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd was, so was his ambition. The show’s major dramatic, if not musical, precursor is Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Indeed, Sweeney Todd might have lifted its omophagic thesis from the opera’s second-act finale, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” It’s striking that Burton has dropped “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” the most Threepenny-esque of Sondheim’s numbers, from the movie. Did he assume that such overt theatricality wouldn’t work on-screen? Staged as though to encompass the entire Industrial Revolution, Sondheim’s discordant and lyrical Sweeney Todd was a metaphor in search of its meaning—was it a work of social protest or a revenge tragedy? A study of abnormal pathology or a joke played upon the audience?

Burton’s expertly trimmed adaptation tilts decisively toward the last possibility. He solves the problem, in part, by ignoring the play’s various subtexts. The original ending is softened, albeit without diluting Sondheim’s dark humor. No Greek tragedy, this Hollywood Sweeney is a fun creepy-crawly. If nothing else, Burton has learned that the successfully gruesome is its own reward.