I just saw Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's movie musical based on Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical of the same name. Like all Tim Burton movies, Sweeney Todd is, despite its nearly monochromatic color palette, bursting with vibrant visuals, especially when the monochrome is broken by blood. Like most Tim Burton movies, Sweeney Todd stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Like relatively few Tim Burton movies, Sweeney Todd is as affecting and passionate as it is visually striking.
Front and center in the film's emotional success is Sondheim's music. Sweeney Todd is a true musical, with characters breaking into song, accompanied by a full but non-diagetic orchestra, to limn their inner feelings. Sondheim's songs are touching and hilarious by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, and although neither Depp nor Carter have been hiding powerful vocals, they both sing effectively and comfortably.
The cast is a mixture of veterans and mostly nondescript newcomers clearly chosen for their singing abilities. Depp plays the eponymous Sweeney Todd, a barber wrongly convicted and imprisoned by malevolent Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who covets Todd's wife. Todd has escaped and returned to London, to find his wife dead, his daughter Joanna Judge Turpin's ward, and his skills as a barber still unmatched, even as compared to the city's current finest - the Italian charlatan Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen in an all-too brief but viciously comic role). In London, Todd immediately starts scheming for a way to get Judge Turpin into his deadly barber's chair, and begins by impressing the judge's evil sidekick Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) with his tonsorial ability. He's joined in his quest by Mrs. Lovett (Carter), the meat pie baker who recognizes the barber and whose pies are the worst in London. The barber finda another ally, in a slightly underdeveloped side plot which never strays too far from the main action, in the sailor who rescued him who has since caught a glimpse of Joanna in Judge Turpin's window and wants to rescue her from his clutches. Joanna, the sailor, and Pirelli's young assistant are all played by actors unknown to me, although they can all sing.
Sweeney Todd is not perfect. Mrs. Lovett urges Todd to be patient in taking his revenge, and at times the film's pace was too measured for my taste - some of that early time could have been reserved for its slightly rushed climax. But, in addition to its well-blended visuals, music, and acting, the movie provides a dark combination of comedy and tragedy. The central tale is pure tragedy, and eventually unwinds several plot twists that heighten the pathos of the barber's plight. But, although always dark, it is often funny, particularly in two scenes. In the first, Todd and Mrs. Lovett sing a witty back and forth about the relative flaws and virtues of meat drawn from priests, vicars, poets, fops, and other 19th century London types. In the second, Mrs. Lovett fantasizes about a financially secure future in which she and Todd can live blissfully at the beach. The barber and the baker, whose dark-lidded pallor is perfect for Burton's murky London, look comically out of place at various beach locales, and Depp maintains his vengeful glower even as his character is put into a variety of beach appropriate outfits. Underlying all of this is the certain sense that, whatever the future holds, it is not a life of bliss for these two.
Sweeney Todd is not, like most of the musicals (Moulin Rouge, Dreamgirls, Once, etc) periodically hyped to save the film version of that genre, a post-musical, a post-modern musical, or a real-life musical. What it is is a standard, although dark and darkly comic, Broadway musical lovingly translated into a film, with the perfect director and cast to capture its somber, manic, and comic moods. In other words, it's a Tim Burton film, propelled by Sondheim's music into emotional realms that the intellectual Burton sometimes cannot reach.