Tim Burton's grand guignol fantasy transforms Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical-theater piece into a cheerfully gothic morality tale.
London, mid-19th century: Once there was a barber, a foolish barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), who never imagined that his radiantly lovely wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), might be viciously coveted by the ruthless likes of Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). But she was, poor thing, and the heartless Turpin had Barker transported to Australia on a trumped-up charge. His efforts to make Lucy his own failed — she poisoned herself with arsenic — so he raised her baby daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), to young womanhood with an eye to possessing her instead. And it is at this juncture that Barker returns, unrecognizable beneath a shock of unruly hair streaked with white, renamed Sweeney Todd and determined to have his revenge. He makes his way to the abandoned garret where he and his family once lived, to find widowed landlady Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a pallid slattern with a heaving bosom and a failing ground-floor pie shop, has kept his beloved razors in hopes of his return. Recognized by flamboyant, self-proclaimed tonsorial wizard Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) — a street huckster who challenges Todd to an impromptu contest and proves a spectacularly poor loser — Todd's hand is forced: To keep the business he hopes will lure Turpin into his hands, he commits his first murder. The ever-practical Mrs. Lovett recycles the corpse into irresistible meat pies, and the ghoulish hijinks are in full swing.
Inspired by an 18th-century urban legend, Sondheim's blackly comic nightmare of cutthroat capitalism and Victorian hypocrisy was cast in penny-dreadful terms perfectly suited to Burton's coolly macabre sensibility. Purists may complain that Depp and Bonham Carter lack Broadway-trained voices — true enough, but they manage just fine — and that many of the show's numbers have been trimmed and some deleted (including "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"). But the sum total of Burton's achievement is remarkable: Set in what looks like a live-action version of THE CORPSE BRIDE's (2005) ornately barren world, his dark fairy tale (Depp even strikes a fleeting pose, razors in hand, that alludes unmistakably to 1990's EDWARD SCISSORHANDS) builds to its grim(m)ly inevitable conclusion with a flawless balanced combination of grace and grue. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh