Bloody good

The Baltimore Sun

The eyes have it in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and they belong to Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Burton's ineluctably involving version of the Stephen Sondheim musical about the homicidal hair-trimmer of the title (Depp) - and the meat-pie-maker Mrs. Lovett (Carter) who comes up with the idea of using corpses as ingredients - plays each crucial action off the otherworldly orbs of his stars. The impact is hypnotic.

The director and his screenwriter, John Logan, lop off the celebrated prologue and start right with Todd and the male ingenue Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), sailing into a visually and morally murky 19th-century London that Hope finds an Olympus and Todd a cesspit where his life went awry. Anyone except conventional thrill-seekers - and Sondheim purists - should be hooked by the way Burton irradiates his performers' expressions while bathing them in a Hadean light. Without digital animation, they do what Beowulf couldn't: They bring superhuman intensity to the fallible creatures in a gory fable.

They act the songs rather than belt them out. It's both unsettling and ticklish, as if they're whispering foul versions of sweet nothings in your ear. Todd sings of his former life as barber Benjamin Barker, sent to prison on trumped-up charges by a crooked judge (Alan Rickman) who wants to corrupt Barker's beautiful, virtuous wife. But the gaudy flashback episodes of Barker's fall register as less real than the shadow-of-the-gallows present. Burton, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Dante Ferretti sustain a gray-brown and off-white color scheme. Until Burton unstops the story's gushers of blood, the fracturing and fuzzing of scenes as seen in warped windows and cracked mirrors provide all the visual zing this movie needs.

Depp brings Todd a spectral intensity from the outset. And when he clicks with Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett as a potential mate (if not, from his point of view, a lovemate), an aberrant electricity leaps out between them. I saw the original production with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury; though Lansbury gave a mythic black-comic performance, I never bought their quasi-marital partnership as the story's life-blood and cement.

Casting the vital, brooding Depp, and the voluptuously funny Bonham Carter brings the film an emotional texture akin to bristling fur. Bonham Carter delivers the key performance in the movie: She plays Mrs. Lovett not merely as a comic grotesque, but as a romantic grotesque, too, and that makes all the difference. Lovett's competition with the memory of Todd's wife is stronger here than in any other production that I've seen. And her dream of living "By the Sea" has an off-kilter poignancy, partly because Burton and Wolski shoot this fantasy as if through Lovett's antique tinted glasses.

The amorous aura that Bonham Carter generates for the both of them makes the irony of the central horror all the more lethal. Depp's eyes overflow with romantic agony while he dispatches one unlucky customer after another, waiting for the judge to take his seat; Burton spells out the gap between Todd's self-justification and his atrocities in spattered blood that rivals the climactic gore-fest in Kurosawa's classic samurai film Sanjuro.

Other directors have brought out the Dickensian, social-protest side of the material, and this film gets there, too, in its own intimate way; Todd's creation of his barber-chair/trap-door contraption is like a dehumanizing Industrial Revolution in miniature.

But the fascism of romantic fixation - that's what Burton nails in this Sweeney Todd.

The cannibalistic black comedy of Mrs. Lovett's surging meat-pie business keeps the comedy percolating, too. So does Sacha Baron Cohen's preening peacock of a barber, Pirelli. And when it comes to heartache, we get Edward Sanders as Tobias, singing "Not While I'm Around" with a full heart and innate decorum that bring tears to our eyes as well as Mrs. Lovett's. Of course, she's crying partly because she reckons she has to murder him.

Burton, Depp and Bonham Carter turn Sweeney Todd into the damndest thing: a warped dream of domestic bliss that leaves you horrified and inconsolable. It's the opposite number to Burton's near-great family drama Big Fish. The big fish here are puffed-up public figures or insane romantics, and they end up sliced and diced.

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