Review: “Sweeney Todd”

It may not be his most purely entertaining effort (that would still be “Beetlejuice”), nor his most deliciously twisted (that’s “Batman Returns”), but it’s fair to say that “Sweeney Todd” is certainly Tim Burton’s best film in over a decade.

This superbly crafted adaptation of Sondheim’s most operatic musical is grim even by Burton’s standards, and yet despite the frequent slashing of throats with silver hand razors, it contains many quotable and almost chirpy melodies that never let you forget this is based on a musical that once plaid along the Great White Way.

Sondheim’s biting satire married with Burton’s stylized gothic tone and moments of visual flare prove more of a perfect match than expected. Helping it along is John Logan’s script, which opts trims some of the needlessly long verses of the original songs rather than cut whole numbers altogether. Yet the entire film remains very much a crooning affair with only about 5% of the lines being spoken plainly rather than as a melody.

Burton uses fluid and enveloping cinematic staging to make numbers like “A Little Priest,” “By the Sea” and the three-way sung “City on Fire/Johanna (reprise)” work in a way that only movie musicals can. Recreation of the period setting is exquisite – the almost monochromatic cinematography and make-up, combined with flashes of theatrical red, makes it an ever so atmospheric Victorian fantasy of dim and dank cobblestone streets, misty overcast stone palaces and cramped dusty attics.

The cast probably wouldn’t last more than few rounds on “American Idol,” but they acquit themselves fine thanks to the mostly spoken word nature of the tunes. All the cast deliver where needed from Alan Rickman’s deliciously evil Judge Turpin to Johnny Depp’s surprisingly committed turn as Todd himself – a kind of Captain Ahab with the bouffant of Frankenstein’s bride. Carter comes out the best with the toughest and most compelling role of the whole film.

Its few faults lie more so in the original work than Burton’s adaptation. There’s no real show-stopping numbers, and often the music between songs is notably stronger and more memorable than those used for the actual singing. Some tunes, though well sung, seem out of place (‘Pretty Women’) and certainly the second half is decidedly stronger both musically and dramatically than the protracted first half.

In any case, this is one of the musicals of late that works. It’s maybe not up there with “Chicago” or “Dreamgirls”, but it’s damn close – certainly a far cry from the visually exciting but hollow “Moulin Rouge”, the woefully overwrought “Phantom of the Opera”, or the godawful “The Producers”.