Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the best adaptation of a stage musical since 2002’s Chicago. I’d even go so far as saying it’s better. Where Chicago attempted to hide its musical-ness behind imaginary musical numbers, Sweeney Todd revels in it: with barely ten minutes of spoken dialogue, Burton’s film leaves most of its Stephen Sondheim score intact. It’s an unabashed movie musical that actually works, and works brilliantly. This adaptation has succeeded where so many others have failed because both Burton and Sondheim, who worked together on the film, understand how theater and film are different mediums and neither was afraid to wield the razor where necessary.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter
Rated R for graphic bloody violence

The film begins as Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) returns from fifteen years at a penal colony in Australia, where he had served time for the crime of “foolishness.” As a young man and under another name he had an infant daughter and a beautiful wife (Laura Michelle Kelly), beautiful enough for the crooked and perverse Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) to take advantage of his position for his own vile purposes. Now back in London, a world-weary Todd bids goodbye to the helpful sailor, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) and seeks out his family. When he comes upon Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) in her grimy pie shop on Fleet Street, he learns that his wife has poisoned herself and Judge Turpin has taken his daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), as his ward. Thanks to Mrs. Lovett’s disturbing infatuation with him, Todd is reunited with his beloved razors and ready for vengeance. He re-opens his tonsorial parlor above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and establishes a reputation as the fastest, cleanest barber in town. In a masterfully orchestrated climax, young Anthony’s love for Johanna complicates Sweeney’s plans. Todd snaps. His plans foiled, he begins his rampant vengeance on London at large. “Not one man, no not ten men—not a hundred!—will assuage me!” he sings. Mrs. Lovett then has the bright idea to put the victims of his vengeance into her meat pies, thus eliminating the messy evidence. As Todd’s quest for justice becomes increasingly unjust, the dark dance between kissing cousins, injustice and vengeance, tumbles to its violent and inescapable conclusion.

On stage, Sweeney Todd placed itself intentionally and unapologetically on the line between musical and opera, making the adaptation to the intimate nature of the screen far more difficult than something like Hairspray or Chicago. In order to shrink the grand scale of the musical to fit the frame of the camera, Burton focuses on the gritty reality of the story. Under Burton’s masterful eye, London becomes not just a backdrop for the story, but a character in itself: filthy, rotten, and devoid of light. In his blue-grey London, red is the only true color we see. Which, of course, includes the blood. Lots of it. Burton’s cameras linger long on every laceration and dwell on the dead as they drop head first onto the cellar floor. Such gruesome imagery does away with the nonchalant black humor of the stage version and makes Todd’s story all the more tragic by emphasizing, instead, the reality of his actions.

In keeping with his gritty theme, Burton collaborates with Johnny Depp for a fifth time to bring us actors who sing as opposed to singers who act. The result is a delicious coarseness that perfectly fits the tone of his film. Johnny Depp may not have the full voice of Len Cariou or Michael Cerveris, but such richness would be too big, not only for the screen, but for the quiet intensity of Depp’s subdued and introspective Sweeney. Much like Hamlet, he plots his revenge with precision and relish; his similar tragic flaw leading to a similarly tragic end.

Sweeney Todd
Helena Bonham Carter and Ed Sanders in Sweeney Todd.

But it is Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett that will be the real surprise for my fellow theater fans. Of all the distinguished actresses who have previously explored the character, Carter is the most convincing. Her Lovett is not only internally consistent, but consistent with the director’s vision, causing her to succeed where other rightly lauded actresses have failed. (Did I really just say that? Did I just place Helena Bonham Carter above Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone? I must have a death wish.) Though her “Worst Pies in London” isn’t played for laughs, as it usually is, Carter infuses Lovett with a brilliant and disturbing indifference towards the world at large. It isn’t until Sweeney—and especially young Toby (astonishing newcomer Ed Sanders)—comes along that she begins to care for anything. As a result, Carter’s thin voice fills “Not While I’m Around” with great hollowness and regret, making it one of the most charming and heartbreaking songs in the film. Her Toby, the perfectly-cast young Sanders is so pitiful and moving that they are the first duo I’ve seen make clear sense of the ambiguous Toby/Lovett relationship, without overstepping the bounds of the original material.

The rest of Sweeney Todd‘s supporting cast is top notch. Alan Rickman can do no wrong, and is perfectly sleazy as Judge Turpin; his beadle, Bamford, is played equally nasty by Timothy Spall. Sacha Baron Cohen as the blackmailing barber Adolfo Pirelli left me a little underwhelmed, as he failed to capitalize on much of the humor, but he remained the only actor to receive entrance laughter in the theater. Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisner as Anthony and Johanna are satisfying enough for their severely trimmed roles. Essentially, the hour cut from the original consisted mostly of the Johanna/Anthony romance, which makes sense. Where the original production used a complete sub-plot to push the main story along, Burton uses only the portions which actually do the pushing. This leaves their story underdeveloped, but justifiably so. On stage, the romance served as an amusing, almost campy counterweight to the dark material that makes up the rest of the musical. Burton, however, isn’t going for balance as much as horror, so the counterweight is unnecessary.

With a few minor exceptions, the remaining Sondheim score is kept intact, and with the most terrifyingly beautiful orchestrations since the original production in 1979. It made this musical theatre fan’s heart skip a few beats. Sondheim’s score simply can’t be beat, and here, it is flawlessly executed. Burton even threw theater fans a bone by including most of the cut songs as underscoring for the appropriate scenes. All in all, Sweeney Todd is skillfully adapted and almost seamlessly executed, with stunning visuals and brilliant performances; a comedically horrifying exploration of injustice and vengeance and the consequences that inevitably follow.

Brittany Petruzzi is currently earning her B.A. in liberal arts and culture from New Saint Andrew College in Moscow, Idaho. She is a creative director for Blue Milk Productions, and has performed in several musical theater productions.

Images courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

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