by Jef Burnham
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Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sweeney Todd is rife with the merciless slaughter of innocents and rampant cannibalism—everything that made the original Stephen Sondheim stage musical great! But I must warn you, right off, that if you cannot stomach musicals or gore, you should probably sit this one out. As a faithful adaptation of the stage version, it is probably 80% song; and the R rating was earned, not for sex or language (of which there is no sex and two or three swear words), but for “graphic bloody violence,” through which it earns every bit of that R.
The story is of barber, Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), falsely accused and convicted of a crime, so the sinister Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) may have his way with Barker’s beautiful wife. Fifteen years later, Barker returns to London under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd. After learning that his wife subsequently drank a bottle of arsenic and Turpin gained custody of his daughter, Sweeney goes blood-crazy, slashing any throat he can get at. With the help of Mrs. Lovett (played by Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter) and her pie shop, they devise a profitable way of disposing of the many, many corpses.
The film is blessed with a talented cast of both veterans and newcomers. Ed Sanders, the young man who plays Mrs. Lovett’s assistant, Toby, is a wonderful discovery. Also, performances are reliably excellent from Depp, Carter and Rickman, all of whom have surprisingly good singing voices, even Depp, for whom the film’s trailers do no justice. However, I must say that even though Johnny Depp is the right age to play Sweeney, he still looks young for the part, though it doesn’t hinder the film in any way. Also, very funny and perfectly cast in the minor role of Signor Adolfo Pirelli is Sascha Baron Cohen of Ali G and Borat.
Some are calling this Tim Burton’s best work to date. Though I have a lot of personal affection for Batman Returns and Beetlejuice, I can say that this is one of the best stage to screen adaptations of a musical, possibly since Cabaret. There are honestly very few changes in the film version, save for the obvious loss of the chorus and the paring down of the Antony and Johanna characters, who probably would have been cut out of this version were they not integral parts of the storyline.
Burton’s handling of the graphic bloody violence will be admired by any fan of the slasher genre. In an otherwise standard musical, Depp lives up to the “Demon Barber” title, as he is drenched in blood no less than eight times; and it’s not the realistic blood they use in movies today. They use the old-fashioned, movie blood, like bright-red paint, reminiscent of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The obvious fake blood allows for the film to embrace the more comedic parts of the script, so that you find yourself laughing about as often as you cringe.
With this holiday season’s unappealing family fare, such as Enchanted and Fred Claus, Sweeney Todd is surely the best holiday release of 2007.
Jef Burnham is a film critic and freelance writer living in Chicago.
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