The Sound of Murder 

click to enlarge art01_film_sweeny_100.jpg

Almost 30 years after its Broadway premiere, Tim Burton has given us a cinematic version of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," widely regarded as Stephen Sondheim's macabre masterpiece and as a high point of American musical theater.

Jubilantly grim, with its lens pitilessly focused on injustice, vengeance and gore -- not to mention its songs extolling cannibalism — it's the anti-Christmas movie par excellence. It's also the most exhilarating, if wrenching, film adaptation of a musical in many years.

Like many a Burton protagonist — Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Willy Wonka — Sweeney (Johnny Depp) is no garden variety maniac. He is an artist, as we see when he vies with a tricked-out mountebank (Sacha Baron Cohen, in a wonderfully entertaining cameo) for the title of London's finest barber. But like every other virtue in the film's bleak world — love, righteousness, filial piety — artistry, once diverted from its proper object, opens a yawning door to crime.

Set in high-Victorian London, the movie begins with the clandestine return of Todd from years of exile, to which he'd been sentenced by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), a vile hypocrite who thus cleared a path to Todd's lovely wife, Lucy. Upon arrival, Sweeney learns from his old landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), that Lucy, overcome with grief and guilt, has long since drunk poison and that the judge himself took custody of Todd's daughter.

When Todd's first attempt at vengeance is foiled, his rage expands to cosmic scale, and he embarks on a course of indiscriminate (but to his mind, entirely justified) murder. Turning his barber's chair into a place of execution, he dispatches his customers' remains to Mrs. Lovett's bake house, where, without further ado, they are put through the grinder and secretly turned into pies. These sell beautifully. It's natural, we're meant to understand, that the commercially successful Londoners should take to human flesh, accustomed as they are to lining their pockets by grinding the poor and powerless to dust.

Todd's remorselessness, of course, is born of pain, and in the title role Depp does a wonderful job of charting the stages of the loving husband's transformation into a monster — from numbness at loss, to slow-burning rage, and then, with the chilling number "Epiphany" ("They all deserve to die!"), to an awful and exuberant rekindling of mad purpose.

If only he had pipes. Alternately speaking and raspily singing his lyrics, Depp does not bring much musicality to the table, and neither, for that matter, does Carter. But Burton in large measure turns this deficiency to his advantage, focusing our attention not on tunefulness, but on the keen edge of rage in the words Depp tears from his throat.

The body, the poet tells us, is a molded river. Seldom has this metaphor been made more gruesomely vivid than when Todd, to the accompaniment of a jaunty tune, slices into the carotid arteries of victim after victim, releasing torrents of blood. Like Todd's and Mrs. Lovett's extravagant hairdos, which look like freeze-frame explosions, these diluvial bloodlettings testify to the dreadful energies pulsing beneath the niceties of social decorum.

Human beings, Burton tells us again and again, are extremely dangerous and unpredictable creatures. On the other hand, as we're shown each time a corpse lands in an undignified heap on the floor of Mrs. Lovett's improvised slaughterhouse, they can with little fuss be reduced to a few cubic feet of pastry filling.

It thus seems almost a nasty joke that the film includes a pair of idealized lovers, Todd's captive daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) and a smooth-cheeked youth (Jamie Campbell Bower) intent on her liberation. In the context of the general calamity, the prospect of the lovers' happiness hardly seems to matter. Rigorously hewing to its pitch-black vision until the end, the film finally treats their destiny with something like indifference.

Burton's adaptation is faithful, but he hasn't shied from cutting those elements more suited to the stage, most notably the musical's opening number, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," sung by the company in Greek chorus mode. Purists may mourn such losses, but the film is tighter for them. With powerful assists from a crack cast and production designer Dante Ferretti, whose labyrinthine London seems braced for a retributive blow from above, Burton has done that rare thing — turned a great play into a great film. (R) 113 min. S

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