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Director Tim Burton’s screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Grand Guignol musical is at once mesmerizing and disappointing. Outstanding singing performances from its capable ensemble cast contrast unfavorably with Burton’s trademark affinity for a monochromatic color scheme of white, blue, brown and gray.
Gallons of orange/red blood pour out beneath thankfully abbreviated songs performed in all-too-predictable orchestrations meant to cater to Broadway audiences familiar with the original Sondheim production. For such an idyllic gothic setting, Burton misses his cue to update the songs with orchestration, reharmonization, tempo, and key changes that could have corrected the music’s tendency to slip into a drone of same-sounding pitches.
Even with such musically backward attention paid to staying true to it’s pit orchestra limitations, Broadway traditionalists will likely chafe at screenwriter John Logan’s shortening of Sondheim’s script that cuts an hour from the play. Yet without Logan’s respectable effort, it is difficult to imagine that film audiences could withstand the material’s already redundant plotting.
The film begins aboard a London bound ship where fresh-faced youth Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) sings the praises of the town upon the Thames as the greatest city in the world in "No Place Like London." Next appears Johnny Depp’s pale profile as Sweeney Todd, a renamed escapee from an Australian prison where the corrupt Judge Turpin (brilliantly played by Alan Rickman) erroneously sent him in order to steal away Todd’s lovely former wife and young daughter.
A shock of white hair (ala Dave Vanian of the punk band The Damned circa the "Phantasmagoria" album) cuts across Depp’s black hair and announces Sweeney’s vampire characteristics that blossom when he aligns himself with his former landlady, the widow Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Giant cockroaches scurry around Mrs. Lovett’s filthy and unoccupied pie restaurant where she woos Sweeney with a song about her disgusting sweet meat pies. Lovett returns Sweeney’s box of well-kept razors from happier days and informs him of his late wife’s suicide. However clearly stated Sweeney’s mission is of slitting the throat of Judge Turpin, the crazed barber is prone to distraction and sets about killing untold numbers of men unlucky enough to wonder into his sparsely furnished barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s bistro.
True to form, each member of the cast gets at least one musical set piece built neatly into the plot. Sacha Baron Cohen gives an especially enjoyable scene-stealing turn as a travelling elixir salesman and barber Adolfo Pirelli who takes distinct delight in publicly abusing his wigged child assistant Toby (Edward Saunders). Sweeney publicly challenges Adolfo to an impromptu shaving duel that becomes more of a musical duet. The audacious display stirs Adolfo’s memory of Todd from before he was sent to prison, and dispatches Adolfo to unwittingly become Sweeney’s first victim when he attempts to extort the returning barber on Fleet Street.
Loosely based on a 19th century stage play, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a particularly bloody melodrama set to a decisively ‘70s Broadway sound. Tim Burton takes advantage of the gory material to press at the boundaries of its head-cracking, blood-spurting visuals and achieve a sublime brand of gothic horror that owes as much to the Hammer Dracula films of the ‘60s as it does to Stephen Sondheim.
There’s a pitch black humor here about revenge as an excuse for bloodlust. In the context of America’s Iraq/Guantanamo quagmire you could read Sweeney Todd as a merciful and equal opportunity executioner who recycles. Torture is beneath him. Our hero is only interested in passionate murder on a grand scale, and yet he is a lazy serial killer. His victims must come to him, just as audiences must gravitate to a Christmas season of bloodletting to relieve the pressure of blood spilling all around us. In the words of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, "The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life Mr. Renfield."