"I've come home again."
Let me be clear. Tim Burton's film of SWEENEY TODD is magnificent. Funny, terrifying, deeply moving and deeply disgusting. I felt the way I felt when I saw RAN or TITUS or THE GODFATHER PART II or PSYCHO. I felt purged. I felt pity and terror. It is not everybody's cup of tea. It is the absolute cinematic embodiment of My Cup Of Tea. I love every single fucking frame of it.
I'd been dreading this film. I didn't know if Tim Burton had the real chops to make this film what it needs to be: a rip-snorting blood-gushing tear-wrenching High Musical Tragedy Slaughterhouse. Could Burton handle SWEENEY TODD, getting the right balance between Blood and Tears? His films tend to either really really work (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) or really really not work (BATMAN, MARS ATTACKS, PLANET OF THE APES) and sometimes both (BATMAN RETURNS, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, SLEEPY HOLLOW). SWEENEY TODD is his least compromised, most assured film to date. And it is also the single finest live action musical film made in, well, at least as long as I can remember.
Burton does what no other filmmaker of the current alleged Musical Renaissance has done: he has put the focus back on the characters, the story, and the songs. When Sweeney Todd sings the heart-rending ballad "My Friends" to his razors, Burton actually allows me to see Johnny Depp sing. And then he does something even more astonishing. He allows me to continue seeing Johnny Depp sing. And then, to cap it all off, he lets me see Johnny Depp sing with Helena Bonham Carter. Two people sing. At the same time. And you can see them both! Singing! Burton keeps the camera in tight, creating an intimacy that is quite simply lacking in the other recent musicals that have gotten so much attention. This is a film, after all, that is set in a series of small, cramped rooms: a barber shop, a pie shop, a basement bakehouse, an insane asylum rather than the series of showbiz stages, imaginary or otherwise, in CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS, HAIRSPRAY, or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
Tim Burton is reminding the world of how to make a musical. There's none of the hyper-caffeinated gonzo MTVwannabe editing and incompetent framing that demolishes the sense and feeling of the songs in CHICAGO (really now, didn't that film look like the work of a blindfolded babboon?), or the fear of singing on display in DREAMGIRLS (where someone beginning to sing is a cue for a cut to a shot of the back of the singer's head) or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (where the drapes get as much screen time as the actors), or the appalling miscasting that finally sinks HAIRSPRAY. Where these other films make the mistake of laying on the "cinematic" trappings of Attention Deficit Editing and Over-Ornate Camerawork, Burton strips it all down, creating a lean mean musical machine.
That isn't to say that the film is cinematically inert, though. There are plenty of fluorishes, including a wonderful opening credit sequence, a marvelous journey through nocturnal London, spectacularly gory throat slashings, etc. I mean, really, this is Tim Burton after all. Burton, however, knows when to go for broke, and when to back off and let me watch these people do their stuff. There are plenty of small spine-tingling pleasures, among them Sweeney's lovingly careful shaving of the area on Judge Turpin's throat that he is hoping to slash open. Just imagining what Rob Marshall would have done with a song like "Pretty Women" makes me nauseous.
Johnny Depp makes a splendid Sweeney Todd, the only actor I've seen apart from Len Cariou (the Broadway original) to capture the pain behind the rage. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is a marvel, showing me a woman who grinds corpses into pie filling in one moment and whose eyes fill with tears over the fate of a young boy the very next. Alan Rickman's surprisingly dashing Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall's repellent Beadle Bamford work beautifully. Not the least of the performances comes from the young boy playing Toby, who delivers possibly the most moving "Not While I'm Around" I've ever heard. I hope this film banishes once and for all the complaint that Burton doesn't deal effectively with actors.
I could go on and on and on. I loved it. I'll leave it to you to discover the joys of the color scheme, the art direction and costume design, and all of the other elements I haven't got space to mention, because just when I get something down here a thousand other delights come flooding back to me. I can't wait to see it again. And again. And again.