Not since 1981, when Paramount unleased “Pennies from Heaven” on unsuspecting holiday audiences, has a studio released so implausible a Christmas musical as this. Festive families tend to look for feel-good entertainment this time of year; and this grimly humorous tale of a maddened hair-cutter in nineteenth-century London who uses his blades to take revenge on those he blames for stealing his wife and child and sending him to prison, along with everyone else who makes the mistake of taking a seat in his chair–and of the landlady who uses the corpses he manufactures as stuffing for her meat pies–is hardly that. Nor is Stephen Sondheim’s score, with its edgy harmonies and typically acerbic lyrics, of the conventionally hummable variety. But Tim Burton’s recasting of the 1979 Broadway semi-opera for the screen turns out to be bloody good, a lusciously Grand Guignol excercise that’s true to the composer’s original vision but spectacularly cinematic as well.
Of course there will be devotees of the show who will consider any alteration in the oroginal an act of cultural heresy and will dismiss Burton’s effort on that ground alone. Certainly the director and screenwriter John Logan have compressed things to fit a conventional two-hour format. Some of the songs are omitted entirely–the periodic choruses about “the tale vof Sweeney Todd” that serve as transitional devices are gone (no great loss)–and others are abbreviated, with verses dropped. But the result remains largely a sung-through piece, with the dialogue pruned to a minimum, and it flows beautifully in this form.
Of special importance in this respect is Dariusz Wolski’s smoothly athletic camerawork, which, in collaboration with Chris Lebenzon’s supple editing, captures the musical numbers from a variety of angles and distances while keeping them graceful. Though mostly sticking to dark, cramped interiors and gloomily gray urban backgrounds (most CGI creations)–the only time the picture breaks out into the sunshine is in the seaside number, here played as a surrealistic dream–the film is wonderfully Burtonesque in the fluidity and elegance of its visual imagery, which is cannily deployed to serve the musical content rather than detract from it. In all these respects the director serves Sondheim exceptionally well.
The other complaint from diehards will involve the casting: neither Johnny Depp, as Sweeney, nor Helena Bonham Carter, as the pie-making Mrs. Lovett, has the pipes of Len Cariou or Angela Lansbury, who originated the roles. (And as the oily Judge Turpin and his obsequious beadle Bramford, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall are hardly great vocalists, either.) But all of them get by with a little help from the sound mixers, and act their parts in song quite effectively. And if you want a Broadway-style voice, there’s always Jamie Campbell Bower, as the young sailor who falls for Todd’s winsome daughter. He belts out the show’s most plaintive melody, the oft-repeated “Johanna,” with dead-on pitch and ample volume. And bioasts youthful good looks besides.
On the support side, Jayne Wisner makes a sweertly blank Johanna, and Sacha Baron Cohen, the erstwhile Borat, milks the role of Todd’s rival–and first victim–Pirelli to the full. Some eyes may be raised at the casting of a boy soprano, Edward Sanders, as Pirelli’s (and later Lovett’s) assistant Toby, especially since the character retains a good deal of vocalism from the original. But unless you’re allergic to the white, almost ethereal sound, Sanders does a fine job, and it certainly makes a lot more sense dramatically for Toby to be a young boy rather than the older fellow generally presented on stage.
Of course, it remains odd to release “Sweeney Todd” at Christmastime. It’s hardly the same sort of mildly scary idiosyncratuc fantasy as Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Corpse Bride,” not to mention “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And if families are in the mood for a holiday musical, “Enchanted” is a much safer bet.
But for adults not incapacitated by their memory of the Broadway show, or willing to try something new, it will be a rich, rewarding transformation of a great musical–a true screen adaptation rather than an attempt at recreation, in which the genius of composer and director mesh perfectly. It’s easily the best screen version of a Sondheim show–a statement which would mean more if the only two previous atrempts weren’t Richard Lester’s “Hard Day’s Night”-style “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and Harold Prince’s disastrous “Little Night Music.”