Depp is bloody good in "Sweeney Todd"

Tue Dec 4, 2007 4:04am EST
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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's 19th century London and everyone is singing, but when arterial blood sprays from the opened throat of Signor Adolfo Pirelli, you know this is no "My Fair Lady."

Stephen Sondheim's award-winning musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," a savage tale of cannibalism, madness and serial murder, is now Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd." The show couldn't have fallen into better hands. With realistic gore replacing the stylistic bloodletting in the stage version, "Sweeney" loses some of its darkly comic tone -- not a lot of laughs here except the nervous kind.

More akin to Burton's "Sleepy Hollow," where heads rolled like so many bowling balls, his "Sweeney Todd" places its emphasis on Grand Guignol and the deeply human story of twice-lost love and the horrifying destructiveness of revenge.

It took two studios, Paramount and Warner Bros., to share the considerable risk of making and marketing this tragic tale that defies so many conventions of the American musical. It will be a significant challenge to find a substantial audience despite the advantage of the Burton and Sondheim brands along with a cast that includes Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.

"Sweeney Todd" comes from an obscure British melodrama -- which might or might not have been based on true 18th century events -- about a deranged barber who slit the throats of customers and his landlady who served the victims up in meatpies.

Sondheim's 1979 show took place within the context of the Industrial Revolution and its rampant corruption and avarice. More satiric opera than musical, "Sweeney Todd" blended together a number of theatrical and literary modes, making the show at once Brechtian, Dickensian and Jacobean. Sondheim acknowledges the influence of the film music of Bernard Herrmann even as he throws in a Viennese waltz or music hall burlesque.

Burton and writer John Logan take all this as a gift, which is then filtered through Burton's own unrepentant sense of the macabre. Except for imaginary sequences or flashbacks to happier days, the film has a monochromatic look with color drained from cityscape. Depp and Bonham Carter dress mostly in stark dark clothes with black circles around the eyes, almost as if the figures in Burton's "Corpse Bride" served as models.   Continued...

<p>Johnny Depp arrives at the premiere of the film "Sweeney Todd" in New York December 3, 2007. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>