This film got some flack for its lack of fidelity from the Sondheim fanbase, but I found it to be a rather interesting, if not entirely successful, stylistic experiment. Director Tim Burton was basically allowed to impose his own vision onto the material, and he certainly did so—the story and score are more or less intact, but the tone of the movie is far more like a typical modern Burton movie than it is like the original stage musical. The film takes a much more serious approach than the stage show, deleting the prologue and other lightening elements and closing on a perverse romantic fadeout as Sweeney bleeds his life out over his wife’s corpse.
The film’s main problem is that the more comic numbers in the show, like “A Little Priest”, tend to play awkwardly, as they break the film’s otherwise consistent tone and the performers seem unsure whether they’re trying to get a laugh or not. The other problem is that Burton cast his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, as Mrs. Lovett. Don’t get me wrong—Carter is a wonderful actress and even a fine singer, but she is completely the wrong type for the part, and given that her part is extremely large and important, her presence does do a lot of damage.
In contrast, Johnny Depp is one of the best Sweeneys of all time, arguably right behind Len Cariou and George Hearn. When he was cast, and especially when it was announced he would not be dubbed, the show’s fans panicked, but it turns out he not only gave a brilliant and chilling acting performance but proved to be a strong and compelling singer. Alan Rickman was equally superb as Judge Turpin, giving a fascinating portrait of a remorseless sociopath, and the supporting players, including Jayne Wisener as Joanna, Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony, and Ed Sanders as Tobias, sang the score beautifully.
I admit that, while the film is worth watching for Depp and Rickman’s performances alone, it is, on the whole, inferior to the original stage musical. Still, when you consider that Sondheim’s last film musical, A Little Night Music, had been both an ultra-faithful stage adaptation and a total disaster, and also that there were already two excellent video versions of Sweeney Todd, one can understand why Sondheim felt the need to experiment with reworking his material to fit the film medium, and the things he learned would be put to much more successful use in his next film adaptation, Into the Woods.
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