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Movie Review

Bloody good

With Johnny Depp as the demon barber, Tim Burton's 'Sweeney Todd' slashes the songs and ramps up the gore

Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd and Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's version of the Stephen Sondheim musical. Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd and Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's version of the Stephen Sondheim musical. (Peter Mountain/warner bros pictures)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 21, 2007

To devotees of Broadway musicals: Fear not, your beloved "Sweeney Todd" has come to the screen relatively intact, with most of its songs and nearly all its depravity.

To Johnny Depp idolators and anyone else stumbling into the multiplex expecting the further larks of Jack Sparrow: This is a musical. More than that, in its original form, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" was a bloody brilliant musical, featuring some of the most glorious melodies in American stage history and some of the most ferocious business. Homicide. Sadomasochism. Incest (sort of). Cannibalism. The kind of show where you go home humming the murders.

Which brings me to my third point: Everybody bring a raincoat. This thing spurts.

What Tim Burton has done to Stephen Sondheim's 1979 show is tighten it, Gothify it, and heighten all the bloodletting that stagecraft can only imply. A Grand Guignol night at the theater has become a full-on horror movie, "Saw" with a ravaged, keening heart. This makes it harder to watch - and may turn it into that rarity, a commercial film whose target audiences cancel each other out - but it's a conceptual masterstroke. "Sweeney" always wanted to be a revenger's tragedy to make us recoil in fright. Now it is. Merry Christmas.

On a lighter note, you want to know if Depp can sing. I'm pleased to report that he can - on a lighter note. Turns out he's almost a tenor. As the mad barber of 19th-century London, returning from the prison colonies to exact vengeance on the corrupt judge who sentenced him, Depp cuts a smart, lithe swath through the film's visual murk, and he hits his notes with ease. He's not a big Sweeney with a big voice - not an un stoppable bull like the men who've played the part on stage - but rather a cauterized romantic hero. A Tim Burton hero.

Todd has crept back into the city accompanied by an idealistic young sailor, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who spies Todd's beauteous young daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and falls in love. Problem: She has been the ward of Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, surprisingly low-key) ever since the villain banished her father and ravished her mother (Laura Michelle Kelly in flashbacks). Ickier problem: Now the judge wants to marry his ward.

In keeping with the blood-and-thunder melodramas on which Sondheim based the play, "Sweeney" is absurd with plot: coincidences, mistaken identities, purloined purses, the lot. It all comes down to revenge, and for this a man needs a helpmate: Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the blowsy restaurateur who grinds Sweeney's victims into meat pies and serves them to a hungry, unknowing public. "What's the sound of the world out there?" the barber exultingly sings to her. "Those crunching noises pervading the air?/ It's man devouring man, my dear/ and who are we to deny it in here?"

This is Rodgers and Hammerstein devoured by Brecht, and the only way it can possibly go down is with black humor and melody. Providing the former are scene-stealers Sacha Baron Cohen (as Signore Pirelli, the grinning mountebank who runs afoul of Sweeney; even Cohen's pants are funny) and the reliable Timothy Spall as the judge's weaselly beadle.

Sondheim provides the melodies, harsh and enchanting. "Pretty Women," the duet between the barber and the judge as one prepares to shave the other, is a heart-stopping ode to watching and appreciating - and fetishizing - the fairer sex. The mid-movie reprise of the lyrical "Johanna" captures all the major characters in stages of bliss and delusion; it's like a fugue for lost souls.

Depp is up to the demands of the role; Bonham Carter, sadly, is not. Burton's wife in real life, she's playing to his wispy Goth sensibility again, and, worse, her singing voice is all wrong. Because Sweeney is the dreamer, Mrs. Lovett has to be the hard-nosed doer, urging her artistic mate toward the practicalities of body removal and such. She's his manager, really, but Bonham Carter plays and sings the part with such limp ennui that at times you can't make out what she's saying (a particular crime with Sondheim). She's an Edward Gorey figure in a Jack the Ripper landscape.

There are other pieces missing. Burton, working with Sondheim himself, has cut all the choral parts (no opening "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," alas), half of the show-stopping "Have a Little Priest" (with its gleeful descriptions of what type of person would make what type of meat pie), and many of the love songs between Anthony and Johanna. You actually miss the latter, since Bower and Wisener aren't the handsome stick figures of most stage versions but odd-looking and impassioned. They're as misshapen as everyone else here, just attractively so.

More damaging is the loss of the play's larger message - that what Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett dish out, we're more than happy to scarf down, whether at a restaurant table or in a multiplex seat. The customers no longer bellow "God, that's good!" in the song of the same name; London has ceased to be a cannibalizing character of its own. Star-struck by his homicidal duo, Burton lets the dark heart of the matter slip.

In its place, though, he puts blood: geysers of it, jetting in hot arterial fountains from any number of severed necks. In a movie year steeped in hemoglobin, "Sweeney Todd" may be the most unrestrained of the bunch. The gore functions as an over-the-top joke, but it's also a devil's bargain, insisting that if we want to be entertained by murder we had better confront what it looks like.

This is risky business, and it brings Burton at least partway out of his shell of chic gloom. It's less distance from Edward Scissorhands to this weary maniac with the gleaming razors than you may think, and Sondheim's unyielding cynicism - expressed in this one musical more than anywhere else - spurs the director to what may be his most direct and discomfiting movie. "Sweeney Todd" comes as close to raging at normalcy as Burton has dared. It's no coincidence that the rage is borrowed from a greater artist.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@ globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: John Logan, based on the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Timothy Spall, Jayne Wisener, Jamie Campbell Bower

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Boston, and suburbs

Running time: 117 minutes

Rated: R (graphic bloody violence, tonsorial mayhem)

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