Those of us who feared Johnny Depp might not be able to execute the vocal gymnastics required for Stephen Sondheim’s revenge-musical, Sweeney Todd, can breathe a sigh of relief. Depp sings just fine, not just the biting angry songs (“Epiphany”), but the sweet lyrical ones as well (“Pretty Women”).
Depp’s intense committed performance along with Sondheim’s music and lyrics (most likely his best score) upstage Tim Burton’s direction, and that’s as it should be. This is a show with wall-to-wall singing. Often, with a quasi-operatic musical of this kind, Hollywood will radically cut the singing and replace it with dialogue to make the show more acceptable to moviegoing audiences, but, God bless ’em, this time they didn’t. Apart from chorus numbers like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” that opens and closes the show, very little has been cut. If Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is what you were hoping to see (and hear), you will not be disappointed.
Which is not to say director Burton doesn’t make a major contribution. As usual, he is responsible for the look of the project, and it’s a good one, all charcoal grays and blacks punctuated with occasional spurts of red (except for the flashbacks, which are brightly colored, as flashbacks to happier times should be). The camera stays close to the characters for the most part, and the mood is appropriately gothic. Since this is a Burton film, one is occasionally reminded of other films Burton admires, notably the Hammer horrors directed by Terence Fisher. The infernal machinery in the basement inevitably recalls Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Burton has said in interviews that the white streak in Johnny Depp’s hair is an homage to Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Dr. X.
Most of the supporting players are well cast. The sequence with Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) as Pirelli the Barber is the standout it ought to be. Alas, Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s significant other) has too thin a voice for the role of Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s ghoulish accomplice. Since most of the comedy in the original show came from Angela Lansbury’s broad scene-stealing performance as Mrs. Lovett, the comedy in this version seems comparably muted , like Ms. Bonham Carter herself. This shifts the focus of our attention from Mrs. Lovett to Sweeney, which is maybe where it belonged in the first place. In short, what was once Mrs. Lovett’s stage show has become Sweeney’s film.