After years of rumours, it turns out that Tim Burton was the perfect visionary to film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Stephen Sondheim's Broadway masterpiece, and the result is a macabre and moving musical movie as enthralling as anything Burton has ever done. The show's mix of gothic horror, Grand Guignol, very dark humor, and witty and beautiful music never was the stuff of traditional musical comedy, but it's a powerful work, and perhaps the richest of the late 20th century. In the movie, Burton's frequent collaborator, Johnny Depp, plays Todd, a wronged man whose lust for revenge drives him to murder (an 19th-century legend who has been traced to a real-life barber). Helena Bonham Carter, another Burton mainstay, is Mrs. Lovett, the barber's partner-in-unspeakable-crime. It's no surprise that Depp is an excellent choice to convey Todd's brooding intensity and volcanic rage, but he can also sing a score that is so challenging it has often played in opera houses (though not with the same style as the Broadway original, Len Cariou, and he occasionally lapses into pop style). Bonham Carter is small of voice and lacks the humour of the original Broadway Lovett, Angela Lansbury, but she sings on pitch, in rhythm, and in character at the same time, which is no small feat for a Sondheim show. Aficionados will regret the loss of certain musical passages--"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is just an instrumental overture and the chorus is gone altogether, among others, but the reassuring presence of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and conductor Paul Gemignani ensures that the music feels right and sounds great. And the film's depiction of a Victorian London hellhole, with cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and costumes by Colleen Atwood, also looks and feels right.
The excellent cast is filled out by Alan Rickman as the villainous Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as his seedy Beadle, Sacha Baron Cohen as a rival barber, Jamie Campbell Bower as the young lover Anthony, Jayne Wisener as his object of affection, and Ed Sanders as the young Toby. For fans of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp who don't think they like musicals, Sweeney Todd should be a revelation (though not for the squeamish, as the gore is intense and completely appropriate). For fans of Broadway and Sondheim, it's hard to imagine getting a better adaptation than this. The fact that there's no newly composed Oscar-bait song sung by a Josh Groban-type over the end credits only makes it better. --David Horiuchi