Sweeney Todd returns from the colonies to seek revenge on Judge Turpin, who, years ago, stole his beautiful wife and daughter and then sent him away as a convict. He is taken in by Mrs Lovett, and establishes a barbershop above her pie shop. Meanwhile, his young companion Anthony chances upon Todd’s daughter Johanna, now captive as the ward of Judge Turpin. To rebuild his reputation, Todd competes in a battle of the barbers against the Italian Pirelli. When Pirelli recognizes Todd from the old days and threatens to blackmail him, he meets with the wrong end of Todd’s wrath and a cast iron kettle to the skull. Todd convinces Mrs Lovett to use his victims as meat for her pies. They adopt Pirelli’s apprentice Tobias, and entice Turpin into the barber’s chair using Johanna – whom Anthony has rescued – as bait. Thus Todd finally kills off the Judge, along with a mysterious Beggarwoman, who turns out to be his former wife Lucy. When he realizes what he has done, he blames Mrs Lovett, and pitches her into the furnace. As Todd cradles Lucy’s body, Tobias creeps up and slits the throat of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
It is misleading to think of this as a film of the stage musical, as Stephen Sondheim has said, and aficionados expecting a faithful remake may be disappointed. Whilst comparisons are inevitable, this is a film in its own right, hitting the mark in certain ways, though falling flat in others. The look of the film is perfect: dark, brooding and gothic, with a palette that barely touches colour except for the red of blood. Johnny Depp pulls off the Demon Barber well – and that is how he plays him, thanks to a script lacking the subtlety of the stage version. Here, the vengeance narrative is played full on, with Depp already spitting blood as he sails into London. Helena Bonham Carter is regrettably miscast as Mrs Lovett, devoid of humour or warmth and struggling with her complex character songs. Elsewhere, though, there are enjoyable performances from Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin, and the always reliable Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford. Newcomers Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener do well as the juvenile leads, and youngster Edward Sanders gives Tobias a good stab. Star of the show, though, has to be Sacha Baron Cohen, whose rival barber Pirelli is suitably ridiculous yet dangerously menacing.
One problem with the film is its pre-recorded studio vocals, which often lack the physical energy suggested by the scenes (and the music): Mrs Lovett’s introductory number, in which her violent kneading of the dough is built into the musical phrases, becomes mealy-mouthed in Bonham Carter’s underplayed vocal style; elsewhere, the striking fanfare of ‘Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir’ (‘Ladies and gentleman! May I have your attention perlease?’), is dainty – unconvincing as a barker’s sales pitch cried out over the rough streets of filthy London. When songs work best – perhaps because of this balance problem – it is in the sung flashback narration early in the film, and it is therefore strange that Burton chooses to dispense with the title song, such an effective framing device throughout the original, establishing as it does the mood, genre and language in which this Grand Guignol fable is told. Nevertheless, the tension builds fittingly as victims take their seats in the barber’s chair, and the duet ‘Pretty Women’, in which Todd readies himself to slit the throat of his nemesis the Judge, stands out as particularly effective against the smoking skyline of London, seen through the expansive window of Todd’s loft barbershop. Elsewhere, the film is a patchwork of set pieces beautifully depicting Victorian London in the stylish designs of Dante Ferretti, worthy winner of an Academy Award. The second act trio ‘Johanna’, in which Anthony, Todd and Lucy each seek their lost loves amongst the labyrinthine alleys of the Ripper-esque city, is beautiful, and shows at its best the complex layering of (Sondheim’s) writing with the direction and design. Meanwhile, the comedy set-piece ‘By the Sea’, whilst lacking the slapstick of the Todd/Lovett relationship, works as an imaginative, theatrical dream sequence with clever camera trickery, quirky cameos and – once again – fabulous design.
The biggest flaw in the film is that it lacks humour to balance the macabre bloodlust. There is a lot of comedy in the music and the script (even as edited here), but Bonham Carter particularly does not deliver, and for all the beauty of the design, its colours remain washed out, trapping any spirit of fun beneath a smoggy torpor of decay. This is a real shame because, whilst the film does stand up to scrutiny, it lacks the characteristic mischief that we have seen so often in Tim Burton’s other, magical gothic masterpieces.