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Photograph by Leah Gallo
EDGY: Johnny Depp cuts an imposing figure in 'Sweeney Todd.'

Slice and Dice

Tim Burton's 'Sweeney Todd' is certain to dominate the holiday's cutthroat competition

By Richard von Busack

HEARING THAT Tim Burton was going to make a musical was like hearing that a bat was fostering a nightingale. But Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is superb, brutally fast, spellbinding work. This dark operatic movie looks like Burton meant every bit of it, that he shared this story's longing for death and night and blood. His too-long stint as cult-movie remaker seems over at last. The film commences with the arrival of what looks like the SS Nosferatu into set designer Dante Ferretti's London. On board is Benjamin Barker (a hypnotic Johnny Depp), who has escaped the penal colony of Australia, where he was sent by a crooked lecherous judge. He seeks his wife and child. No sign exists of the former. Of the latter, there is only her grubby cradle, abandoned 15 years ago.Depp's first aria shows the model he took for his singing: David Bowie, particularly in the Bowie rarity "Please Mr. Gravedigger." (A movie star can make himself Bowie, but Bowie could never make himself a movie star.) As he strides through the ancient brick sewer, Depp half-mutters lyrics from "No Place Like London": "There's a hole in the world/ Like a great black pit/ And the vermin of the world/ Inhabit it." Assuming the alias Sweeney Todd, he meets with his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who rents him space to engineer his revenge. He is so consumed that he doesn't notice the caressing way she uses the word "beautiful" to describe him as he was, back when he was young. Todd's first victim is the towering Italian mountebank Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). A blusterer in an electric blue, skin-tight outfit, Cohen makes a wonderfully cruel figure, a new version of Peter Cook. The film also provides a pair of young lovers (Jayne Wisner and Jamie Campbell Bower), just as every musical needs; they are separated by Sweeney's target, a wicked judge (Alan Rickman) and his hog-faced beadle (Timothy Spall). The young lovers provide the right amount of Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy stuff to cut to.

The play has been whittled to a point, with the help of composer Stephen Sondheim; it's an example of how sometimes brutally cutting a film can do wonders for it. Only in one number, with the relentless dispatching of a half-dozen men, does Sweeney Todd get to be too much—the shock starts to wear off. Sondheim's inspiration for this dark revenger's musical was Bernard Herrmann's score for Hangover Square (which turns up at the Noir City Film Festival in January in San Francisco). One can also hear the echo of Herrmann's love theme from Vertigo when Mrs. Lovett sings, "And he was beautiful." While Depp's Bowiesque approach is radically different from the big baritones that customarily sing Sweeney, it seems perfect here. Helena Bonham Carter's vocals leave you wishing for the macabre coziness of Angela Lansbury's 1979 recording. Onscreen, though, Carter's paleness and pathos leave you wanting nothing. In a film era that has lost its faith in tragedy, Sweeney Todd is like a dark beacon. Its true hero is the Conqueror Worm.

Movie Times SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (R; 120 min.), directed by Tim Burton, written by John Logan, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, photographed by Dariusz Wolski and starring Johnny Depp and Helana Bonham Carter, opens Dec. 21 valleywide.

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