Kabuki-lite makeup, ornate art direction, a fantastical spin on ultraviolence. Who else could've directed "Sweeney Todd" but Tim Burton? The conditioner-challenged master of the macabre lunges forward with cold steel in "Sweeney Todd," Burton's gurgling take on Stephen Sondheim's enduring 1979 Broadway curiosity.
Returning to London after years of imprisonment, Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is ready to slaughter Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the man who stole his wife and daughter away. Heading back to his old barber haunt, Todd opens his shop again, with the help of meat pie baker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). To bide his time before committing multiple acts of vengeance, Todd elects to murder his customers, slicing their throats and sending them down to the basement where Mrs. Lovett grinds them into food. It's a mad plan that inches Todd closer to Turpin, but a revelation that Todd's grown daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is caught up in the passions of a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower), leads Todd to ultimate sacrifice.
After their unforgettable collaborations on films such as "Edward Scissorhands," "Sleepy Hollow" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," it's safe to assume that Johnny Depp and Tim Burton share the same taste in psychosis. How else could one explain a musical that works better as a psychological profile than as an exhibition of singing?
"Sweeney" is a famously twisted tale, popping up its head in many incarnations, but none as deliciously baroque as Burton's film. With Deep at his side, the director is given carte blanche to imagine Sweeney's world of pulse-racing vengeance and comical cannibalism, channeling his forlorn art student instincts to smooth out the material for the big screen. This is far from Burton's finest directorial work, but it is his most restrained in terms of composition and tempo. The filmmaker is playing the musical close to his chest, perhaps to appease the notoriously finicky Sondheim, but more likely to capture audience attention; ensuring that they will be able to sit through a film promoted as Johnny Depp singing his heart out, but is really a love letter to seething, sadistic bloodletting.
Oh my, does the wet red ever flow in this picture. Gushing out of Sweeney's victims like a runaway fire hose, blood is the unofficial co-star of the movie, acting as the orgasmic release of anger for the titular character. It's a polarizing aesthetic choice for Burton: either audiences will lap up the exaggerated Grand Guignol theatrics with a nervous smile or they'll cower in their seats hoping to switch their tickets to the next available showing of "Enchanted." Burton wins either way. "Sweeney" is absurdly violent, yet it's hardly sleazy or dreary, embracing mass murder with a wink and Burton masterfully rides the tonal changes.
As with any musical, there's a personal chemistry issue with the songs. While lusciously composed and performed by the cast (even Depp, who gives it the rock star atta boy), the selections range from memorable and plush to formless and dull. Thankfully, the moments with Depp and Bonham Carter trading verses tend to be both plentiful and engaging, pedaling the film up to a captivating speed.
To wrestle the film down to a two-hour running time, cuts were made to the musical (notably the "God, That's Good!" number), and the gaps are perceptible from the midsection. The human meat pie centerpiece of the story - the taboo stamp of the musical during its many runs - has been compacted to just a few movements; a greatly disappointing change to place higher emphasis on Sweeney's suffering. With the insanity pared down, the film's second half drags its feet, losing a fluid sense of pacing that's necessary to rouse the finale to a fever pitch.
"Sweeney Todd" is Burton's most overstated picture, and his first pass at a Hollywood musical is a daring experiment in directorial control. This is a coal-stained, blood-spurting, red carpet of rage, and a brave embellishment of the harsh tones that informed the Broadway incarnation. "Sweeney Todd" plays to Burton's strengths, and it's gratifying to watch a musical predicated more on singing than combustible pop choreography. However, it's a strong brew of gothic horror that could've used a little more illumination to find a proper footing.
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