Sweeney Todd: Slice of life

Tim Burton’s adaptation hits razor-sharp notes

Early in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, before the blood starts flowing in earnest, a tormented-looking man enters a squalid pie shop in Victorian London. Half-mad baker Mrs. Lovett eventually recognizes the visitor and says, “So it is you, Benjamin Barker.”

In the musical’s 2005 Broadway revival, Michael Cerveris lashed back with a murderous, gale-force bellow: “NOT BARKER! TODD NOW! SWEENEY TODD!” In Tim Burton’s new film version, Johnny Depp half-whispers the reply with sinister pride, as if he’s brandishing a homemade shiv: “Not Barker. It’s Todd now. Sweeney Todd.”

The difference in deliveries marks the distinction between live theater and cinema. On stage, such oversized, high-volume emotions can connect actors to distant audiences and elevate petty crimes to grand passions. On film, the characters are already larger than life, but a softer, more intimate attack can get us practically under their skin.

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd succeeds on such a visceral level because it knows why movies don’t have to be the same as plays. In adapting the Tony Award winner, Burton lined up a stellar cast with scarcely any professional musical experience. Could they measure up to the towering, complex songs of Sweeney Todd, which has curdled the blood of theater-goers since its 1979 debut?

Maybe Burton’s cast couldn’t pull off a live version in a cavernous theater, or could have carried a brighter screen musical full of bouncy melodies and fancy footwork. But they slide into the movie version’s roles like knives into scabbards, creating such tempestuous emotions and vivid personalities that the satisfying vocals turn out to be an unexpected bonus. This scary, stirring Sweeney Todd is made for the close-up.

The story dates back to the revenge melodramas of the “penny dreadful” stories, and Burton treats the film as homage to atmospheric horror flicks from Universal Studios in the 1930s and Hammer Films a generation later. The title character began as an innocent barber and family man, wrongfully convicted by perverse Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), with designs on the barber’s wife. Under the pseudonym Sweeney Todd, he returns to London 15 years later to find his wife lost forever and his grown daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) living as the judge’s ward.

With his pallid complexion and white-streaked hair, Depp makes Todd a figure of Dickensian wrath, with the vocals to match. Reportedly, Depp found the voice not through classical training but what he calls a kind of “punk rock” instinct. However Depp did it, Todd’s songs have a kind of rising snarl that perfectly fits his smoldering personality. In the raging aria “Epiphany,” he sounds prepared to annihilate the human race, but he also displays a kind of twisted sensitivity, singing a lilting love song to his long-lost razor blades in “My Friends.” He’s got an edge in his voice.

Part of what raises Sweeney Todd above, say, a Vincent Price vengeance thriller such as Theatre of Blood is Sondheim’s lyrics, which can be nearly Shakespearean in scope and insight. In “A Little Priest,” Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) suggests a way Todd’s killing spree can feed her failing pie business, and their darkly comic scheme becomes a metaphor for cannibalistic capitalism, containing all the inequities of Victorian society. “God, That’s Good” plays like an infernal version of “Food, Glorious Food” from Oliver!.

Rather than overemphasize the playful moments, Burton instead lives up the story’s operatic qualities as a tale of mad love. Fittingly for a film attuned to the little details of barbers and personal grooming, the characters obsess over the beauty of others, frequently in twisted ways. Todd and Turpin share the duet “Pretty Women,” which would be lovely if we weren’t so aware of their predatory intentions. Todd sings the poignant “Johanna” to his daughter’s memory while almost absentmindedly slashing throats. Even when stalwart sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) sings of his love for Johanna and becomes an iconic figure of true love, we’re aware that they’re virtually strangers, and wonder if their affection could go wrong.

Sometimes Bonham Carter’s voice falls flat, but she invests Mrs. Lovett’s eyes with such desolation and longing that we feel sympathy for her despite her sociopathic attitudes. She pines for Todd, who’s so blinded by bloodlust he can barely see her. In “By the Sea,” she imagines finding domestic bliss with Todd on a seaside vacation, even though they stick out like black-and-white ghouls amid the bright, dreamy colors.

To tap Sweeney Todd’s wild feelings, Burton redirects his trademark ironic impulses. Sometimes a slave to his childlike sensibility in his earlier films, Burton crafts almost none of his self-consciously morbid quirkiness, except for a breakneck Steadicam shot through London’s grotesquely guttered streets. The graphic scenes of spraying blood, dousing everything from Depp’s shirt to the camera lens, will send some audiences hurrying for the exits, but never feels gratuitous.

In perhaps the film’s strangest touch, Burton leaves out “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” possibly the stage show’s most powerful and haunting song. It’s kind of like doing Oklahoma and leaving out, you know, “Oklahoma.” In the missing tune, however, you can find a line that perfectly expresses the film’s dark virtues: “Sweeney was smooth. Sweeney was subtle. Sweeney would blink, and rats would scuttle.”