Stephen Sondheim has not been well served in the movies. As he is the first to admit, the filmed versions of "A Little Night Music" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," based on shows for which he wrote both music and lyrics, were not wonderful, and "Gypsy," where he functioned only as lyricist, was glitzy and overly sunny. As for "West Side Story," I can't recall a best picture Oscar winner that has aged worse.
To say, therefore, that "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is the best Sondheim adaptation ever filmed is not to say very much. But I don't mean to damn with faint praise. The film, starring Johnny Depp, is a considerable achievement even if, on balance, it's more of a Tim Burton phantasmagoria than a Sondheim fantasia.
And therein lies the rub. One's fondness for this film will depend a lot on one's tolerance for Burton at his most ghoulishly gruesome. With Sondheim's approval, he and his screenwriter John Logan have pared down the almost three-hour stage show into a two-hour movie and retained in their original form only 10 of the show's 25 major numbers.
Purists will complain but the fact is the show moves a lot faster with all those ballads and backstories cleared away. I have wonderful memories of seeing Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the original 1979 Broadway production, but why should Burton and Co. have set out to duplicate it? They have fashioned a movie musical that is first and foremost a movie, and that's not something you see often. It works through the eyes – and, as it turns out, this approach also does wonders for the ears. Burton puts all of our senses on red alert.
"Sweeney Todd" has a gothic look but a modern sensibility. Even trussed up in Victorian trappings, the free-floating dread has an immediacy. Depp's Sweeney has arrived back in London after escaping from 15 years of false imprisonment in Australia engineered by the Judge (a wonderful Alan Rickman) who stole his wife. Bent on revenge, Sweeney partners with Mrs. Nellie Lovett (a pasty-faced Helena Bonham Carter) – he as a barber, she as the piemaker whose delicacies are filled with the flesh of the victims he slaughters.
The blood spurts freely – the only garish coloration in what otherwise resembles a black-and-white movie. Depp, his hair jet black except for a skunkish streak of white, looks ravaged, and his singing, which at times sounds like early David Bowie, is throbbingly heartfelt.
Burton's sensibility – lushly dank and penny dreadful – does not have the operatic expansiveness of Sondheim's, and so the movie is, in some ways, a diminishment of one of the great works of American theater. But it has a suggestiveness and terror all its own, and that's achievement enough. Grade: B+