"There’s no place like London!" trills young sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) at the outset of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." And maybe there isn’t, but it does have its cinematic predecessors. Pile the dankest, dreariest sections of Gotham City, Sleepy Hollow and the town that houses the Wonka chocolate factory together, strip away any colors and scatter lowlifes, prostitutes and beggars on the street corners, and you have what the title character of Stephen Sondheim’s musical describes as "a hole in the world like a great black pit," and the setting of director Tim Burton’s goth apotheosis. His able adaptation of "Sweeney Todd" isn’t just dark â€” it is black on black (with, okay,
generous splashes of red), in look and in spirit, to the extent that
it’s not so much a return to form for Burton as a step beyond what was
once his usual. In the film, the sky never gets lighter than a chill grey, uniformly hideous
aging wallpaper recoils from the corners of ill-lit rooms, people are arrayed
in pallors ranging from chalky to bluish â€” and the things they do to each other! Orphan abuse, rape, murder, cannibalism â€” the wicked are punished, and the wronged are punished, and it’s just what they deserve for being around.
It’s all in line with Sondheim’s gloriously Grand Guignol musical, which Burton and writer John Logan have done a workable job of abbreviating for screen (the most notable excision is the prologue, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"). The barber Todd, born Benjamin Barker and played by Johnny Depp, returns to London after years of exile for a crime he didn’t commit, bent on finding his wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and now grown child (Jayne Wisener) and taking his revenge on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the man responsible for framing him. When this doesn’t work out, he instead sets himself up above Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop, shaving throats or slitting them to provide his partner with filling for her pastries. "Sweeney Todd" is very much a musical, with songs bridged by dialogue that’s often also sung, and it’s unapologetic about the fact save that its leads aren’t really singers. Depp acquits himself fine, with a bit of the 80s rock star to his voice, but Bonham Carter has to speak sing her way through. Alan Rickman is good as the licentious Judge Turpin, but child actor Ed Sanders, playing the urchin Toby, is so much noticeably better than the rest of the cast that the contrast can be jarring. Mostly it doesn’t matter, because "Sweeney Todd" isn’t shot like a musical â€” it doesn’t stop and pull back for its big numbers; the singing, varied as it is, is folded matter-of-factly in with the rest of the action.
"Sweeney Todd" manages to hum devilishly along, skimming through the side story of the earnest lovers (who are, in their whey-faced way, creepier than anyone else in the universe of the film) and slipping in some nasty visual jokes involving the assisted sharpening of a razor and another a group of women in an asylum. The slaughter, when it begins, is unflinchingly disgusting, gouts of blood spurting through the air, the tenth throat slit given no less attention than the first. (Between this, "Eastern Promises" and "We Own The Night," it’s been a big year for the carotid artery on screen.)
Still, strange as it seems for what should be a heaven-made match of director and material, there’s a note of discomfort to the film that grows as the ghoulish humor finally drops away. Burton’s always been one for the outcast exterior and the cuddly interior â€” as his films have become more mainstream, more stylistically impressive and less emotionally engaged, his continued attachment to the sentimental has seemed ever more forced, which is why plenty of people, ourselves included, rebelled at the gooeyness of "Big Fish" and the explanatory unhappy childhood invented for Willie Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." There’s no space at all for softness in the latter part of "Sweeney Todd," and as a result the film seems a little lost, uncertain in what, to avoid spoilers, we’ll leave as a very unhappy ending. In the same vein, the film flubs what might have been its most twistedly poignant segment for an easy joke. As Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett sings "By the Sea," imagining a blissful retirement with her violent love in a coast town somewhere, we’re treated to a serious of "Scissorhands"-bright scenarios in which, to reinforce their unlikelihood, Depp’s Todd glowers and pays her no mind as she leads them on a picnic, a walk along the pier and a day on the beach. It’s funny, but it takes away from the fact that Mrs. Lovett, who, in her terrifying practicality is really more of a monster than Todd, is also expressing the most relatable and sadly deluded human yearnings you get in the whole film. Now that â€” that is really fucked up.