Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) is mad and vengeful, and, no small thing, a bit irritable. This much is clear from his first moments on screen, as he literally sails into London from out of a stagy fog, the camera close on his darkly shadowed face. Inspired by his deckmate, a pretty boy (Jamie Campbell Bower) extolling the city’s singular attractions (“I could hear the city bells ring…”), Sweeney Todd glowers: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit,/And the vermin of the world inhabit it.”
It’s about two minutes into Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and already it’s clear that no one’s going to visiting local monuments or tap-dancing his way to fame, glory, and true love. No. This is a different sort of movie musical, based on Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical and directed by Tim Burton, who, it turns out, was born to make this film. Unlike the award-globbing, gleeful musicals of Christmases past, Burton’s film seethes with blood, frustration, and oh yes, more blood.
Our story begins with Sweeney Todd’s return home, following his escape from an Australian prison. The background for his circumstance is briefly dispatched in glowy flashbacks: sweet-natured, celebrated barber Benjamin Barker has a brightly blond wife and baby. When she catches the eye of supercilious Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), he devises a plan to win her away, namely, sending Barker to jail, where he broods for 15 years, loses all his golden-dewy color, arriving pasty and renamed, not to mention bent on brutal retribution.
Sweeney Todd’s scheme is no less devious than Turpin’s, but considerably more hands-on. First, he finds a room, above the moldy meat-pie shoppe owned by Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Moved by his pain, Mrs. Lovett fills in Sweeney Todd on the nasty historical details: the wife “succumbed,” the daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisner), is now an adolescent, soprano-voiced ward of the judge, whose villainy persists in his Woody-Allenish designs to marry her. After their duet (“Poor Thing”), Mrs. Lovett has no issue falling in with the barber’s own demonic plan, namely, to cut the judge’s throat.
The route to this revenge is decidedly iniquitous, the film opening out the possibilities of the stage show in ways that range from clever to brilliant. While Sweeney Todd’s deckmate Anthony swoons on the sidewalk after spotting Johanna (thus offering up a sort of conventional romance), the barber turns his attention to the objects of his adoration, “My Friends,” his very shiny, very sharp blades, which the long-crushing Mrs. Lovett has kindly kept for him in a trunk. Using these to establish a new reputation as a barber to be sought out, he competes in public with the unctuous other barber in town, Adolfo Pirelli (stunt-cast Sacha Baron Cohen).
While this contest of quirky perversities bears its own charms, it leads more or less directly to the film’s most innovative and strange twist-up on Sondheim’s version, which is the very reasonable and also disquieting childification of Toby (Edward Sanders). Where live-show incarnations of Sweeney Todd’s hastily adopted helper (this when his initial master, Pirelli, meets his expected end) aged him as “young adult,” however socially retarded, this boy is a boy, alternately shy and bold, trusting and horrified. His youth complicates his duet with Mrs. Lovett, “Not While I’m Around” (“Demons’ll charm you with a smile, for a while,/But in time…/Nothing can harm you”), making her relationship to him more explicitly maternal, and thus, infinitely more disturbing.
Not comprehending the scope of Mrs. Lovett’s devotion to Sweeney Todd (she helps to cover up his serial murders by making her fresh and improved meat pies out of the corpses he provides), the boy — survivor of a workhouse, eager to fit in — thrills to her affection, and even accepts Sweeney Todd’s own odd displays (that is, he plies Toby with liquor).
The film’s focus on the child’s efforts to understand and so inhabit this awful, literally cannibalistic adult world, is of a piece with little Freddy Highmore’s part in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and so, morally connected to the credulous Edward Scissorhands and enthusiastic Ed Wood. Optimistic and (relatively) innocent, Toby is also looking into Sweeney Todd’s “great black pit,” the pit that will suck from him his loyalty, hope, and longing.
In Toby’s story, even more than in Sweeney Todd’s, the film observes the evolution of vengeance as ethos, the ways it can come to look like justice, a means to escape “living hells,” or, as Sweeney Todd phrases it, “salvation.” Sweeney Todd is delirious with blood and violence: bright red spurting from the barber’s expert slashes, necks snapping and bodies crumpling as they slam, one after another, to Mrs. Lovett’s basement floor. If Sweeney Todd’s cunning is demonstrated in the trap door he builds beneath his barber’s chair, his self-sustaining, long-churning, soul-debilitating rage seems beyond his control.
While the film serves up some conventional romance numbers and a fiercely expansive design for “By the Sea” (climaxing in a shot of the three members of the appalling family unit, seated awkwardly and determinedly in primary-colored bathing costumes) — it maintains a steadfast fascination with the cruelty, selfishness, and carnage that grants such lovely daydreams any time at all. It’s a remarkable awareness, born of trauma and producing malevolence, and devastatingly delightful in Sweeney Todd.