Director Tim Burton began his career with a half-dozen films of varying degrees of brilliance. What made them unique were Burton’s off-kilter sense of humor, his cockeyed camera, and the bouncy musical scores of frequent collaborator Danny Elfman.
But after Mars Attacks bombed expensively in 1996 (the movie is flawed and inspired in equal measure), something changed. Burton responded with his first R-rated film, a film darker than any he’d done before, the angrily slapdash Sleepy Hollow . The humor was drowned in blood and livid, inky blackness. Rather than conjuring a world, the film seemed trapped in a claustrophobic set. At the time, I was heartbroken, sure that box office rejection had ruined a singular vision, as Baron Munchausen had lost us Terry Gilliam.
The thing is with Burton and Gilliam, they did change; they did go darker; and they demand that you adjust. I came around on Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, and I’ve come around on Sleepy Hollow , which, as it turns out, was mere stage setting for Burton’s finest hour: a film version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street .
Sweeney has always been an odd duck in the musical theater, with its story of a vengeful barber who slits throats, and the crazy Mrs. Lovett who runs the bakery downstairs, turning the evidence into meat pies. Those who swear by the musical find it hilarious, with witty lyrics as sharp as the silver killing razors at the end of Sweeney’s arms.
Picture a pretty young man with a honeyed voice. As Sweeney Todd observes, "Life has treated you kindly. You will learn." The boy chances to hear beautiful Joanna, Sweeney’s long-lost, eyebrowless, big-boobed daughter, singing about birds trapped in cages. He spots her in a window, like Rapunzel in her upstairs prison, he on the street where Liza Doolittle lives. It borders on nauseating.
The thing is, we’re being set up. Judge Turpin, the girl’s stepfather, played by Alan Rickman with ice in his veins, invites the boy into the house. Offers to show him a collection of sex pictures from around the world. Orders his henchman, Beadle, played by Timothy Spall, who looks like a sinister version of the Mad Hatter, to beat the boy with a rod. And as the young man stumbles down a dark London alley, bruised and bloody, he picks up the song again, which has a sudden and fierce poignancy and fire.
That’s the miraculous thing about this filmed version of Sweeney Todd : when it bares its teeth, which it does with disarming frequency, the music works better . The more gothic and Grand Guignol Burton takes it, the more arterial spray spatters the screen, the more falling bodies land right on their exploding heads – the more his vision coheres, and the possibilities of Sondheim’s book drip like precious rubies. Here, film and musical theater actually bring out the best in each other; it’s altogether inspired.
Burton has toned down his usual expressionism, instead borrowing the artificiality of the Hammer horror films. His sets look like sets; that is, they look fake. It’s intentional; they are gloriously fake. It’s a look set up in the opening credits, as we follow a trail of blood through an Edward Gorey-like, popup tableau of London to the sepulchral drone of a pipe organ. Or take the skunk shock of white in Sweeney’s hair. It’s at once a reference to The Bride of Frankenstein , a reminder of the horrors the character has seen, and a stroke of high glamour.
Finally, a word about two fine performances. An actress would have to be wary of tackling a role that Angela Lansbury had made iconic on Broadway. But Helena Bonham Carter, with no professional voice training, does Sondheim’s clipped diction proud, singing about the worst pies in London like a nervous, chirping magpie, coaching Sweeney like a Lady MacBeth ("That’s a throat to slit, my dear.") And Burton buttresses Bonham Carter with a surreal dream sequence, shot without shadows from her point of view, reminding us of Mrs. Lovett’s syphilitic madness.
And then there is Johnny Depp. He is Burton’s alter ego, and the two trust each other to go out on a limb to the very twigs. Depp clothes himself in eccentric layers, as he did for Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka. Sweeney Todd would have collapsed if Depp couldn’t sing. But he can, Burton has the touch for musicals, and we have the perfect antidote to the cloying consumerism of the season, an ichor-soaked stroke of Dickensian brilliance. Merry Christmas, God bless us, every one.