In the 1840s, Edward Lloyd, publisher of illegally pirated Dickens tales (who now remembers the illustrious story of 'Oliver Twist', or the amazing adventures of 'Nikelas Nickelbery'?) and promoter of cheap 'penny dreadfuls', inadvertently added something deeply dark and original to the popular imagination. With an inauspiciously titled tale known as 'A String of Pearls', a tale first published anonymously (almost certainly penned by more than one unnamed author — each contributing their work at a rate of a penny a word) in weekly installments from 1846 to 1847, Lloyd was responsible for the advent of one of the first 'serial killers' to appear in a work of popular fiction. The murderous London barber Sweeney Todd and his cannibalising work-mate Mrs. Lovett have never really gone away since then; initially capturing the imagination of a mid-Victorian public who could well believe in their exploits (scandals involving the adulterated nature of much of the staple foods of the day were quite commonplace), the tale of Todd and Lovett greatly influenced other works of fiction that have since gone on to earn their own place in legend — most notoriously that of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' which "borrowed" large chunks of 'A String of Pearls' in the process of creating what has, itself, since become one of the most enduring tales of Gothic dread in literature. In the modern age, the spirit of Todd has continued to live on in the countless incarnations of the character that have since appeared on stage and screen, while his influence can be felt in many a modern horror film: "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is little more than a modern retelling of that original tale, complete with the dubious appeals to "true life" authenticity that helped turn Todd into an urban myth back in the 1870s. ("It Happened!")
One of the most audacious adaptations of the tale to appear to date was surely Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical, which was based on Christopher Bond's acclaimed 1973 play. It is this version which forms the basis for Tim Burton's latest film, and the result is one of the director's greatest achievements to date: a deliciously ghoulish delve into a Dickensian world of urban Gothic set in a hyper-real fantasy of pre-Victorian London that sees the capital painted entirely in fogbound shades of smoke-grey and rainstorm blue. Visually, this is surely the darkest, grittiest, grimiest, most soot-blackened representation of 19th Century London you could ever hope to see on film. Burton and his cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, cast every muddy rookery and back-street slum in the blackest, most impenetrably tenebrous of shadows; the only ray of light coming from the grizzled shock of white in Johnny Depp's luxuriant coiffure; the only primary colours the gushing geezers of crimson — spraying in bright fountains from the opened throats of Depp's unfortunate clients, in the dingy upstairs barbers above Mrs. Lovett's redoubtable meat pie emporium!
This is one of the most extravagantly bravura Gothic fantasies to be attempted on screen since Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula". But while lovingly capturing the ramshackle "beehive" metropolis — a warren of overhanging buildings and tottering tenements; and aside from gleefully detailing Todd's every last sordid act of bloody barbarism (brains splat on the stone floor of Mrs. Lovett's bake house when Todd ejects his victims via his hairspring barber's seat, with a satisfyingly juicy crunch of skull on stone; while ruby blood droplets drip always with a deliciously glutinous slowness in this film), amid it all, Burton remembers to do justice to the genius of Sondheim — and that is what elevates this wonderfully gore-saturated masterpiece above many a run-of-the-mill period piece.
I've never been a big fan of film musicals. The transition from dramatic action to music can often seem jarring, taking you out of the moment — literally 'stopping the show', reminding you of the artifice behind everything. Stephen Sondheim's songs have rarely troubled the musical mainstream but here, in his most operatic of scores, he demonstrates the art of making music and lyrics serve the story being told (Sondheim is surely one of the most witty and subtle of lyricists in any genre) — the music constantly elucidating the emotional underpinnings of the material while the lyrics develop the story as assuredly as the intervening scripted action. After the first few minutes one simply forgets one is watching a musical at all, and the score becomes a part of the landscape of the movie — just as a good underscore in any film always does — only making itself visible when it serves the drama best for it to do so, with Sondheim's penchant for polyphonic counterpoint bringing an extra sophistication and an intensity to the emotional language of the film that often elevates it to the near sublime. Although the film doesn't reproduce the full musical score, Burton must have known a good thing when he saw it, and it is in the carefully chosen musical numbers where the drama and the emotion — and even the macabre humour — of the story are most prominently showcased; Burton bringing all of his rich palette of Gothic obsessions to bare in a magnificent display of darkly wrought visual opulence courtesy of production designer Dante Ferretti, whose vivid but fantastical depiction of decayed Dickensian squalor is sharply contrasted with Mrs. Lovett's dream life of a literally (Victorian) picture postcard ideal: a life where she and her "Mr T" promenade in gleaming whites along a heavenly seaside pier, set against an eternally cloudless blue sky.
The Depp/Burton partnership is clearly still running as strongly as ever here; but this is where Burton's vision of Depp as a pale-faced, shock-haired outcast finds its most sinister expression yet. The amusing dysfunction that was always present at the heart of characters such as Ichabod Crane, Edward Scissorhands or Willy Wonka has become, in Benjamin Barker — aka Sweeney Todd — a corroded, all consuming, sallow-skinned, hate-filled sociopathic thirst for vengeance! Taking its cue from the emotional back story of Christopher Bond's play, the musical relates how Barker's former life (shown in a rosy, burnished flashback that looks much closer to the idyllic past we so often see portrayed in period films) was destroyed when the corrupt judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) organises his transportation to Australia so that he can get his hands on Barker's beautiful wife. Returning to the site of their former home many years later, Barker discovers from Mrs. Lovett that his wife later poisoned herself after being raped by Turpin, and that his daughter Johanna (merely a baby when he was separated from her) is now Turpin's ward, kept locked up in his townhouse, awaiting the day when she will be forced to marry her 'patron'. Overcome by his thirst for vengeance, Barker (now calling himself Sweeney Todd) sets about inveigling himself into London life as the best barber in the country, disposing of his rival, the flamboyant Signor Adolfi Pierelli (a colourfully Dickensian caricature played with relish by Sacha Baron Cohen) in the process; and all in preparation for inducing judge Turpin and his odious, slimy sidekick Beadle Bamford (a walk in the park for Timothy Spall who now seems to specialise in such horrid characters) into his barber's chair for their final ever shave! Most of the film revolves around what happens when Todd's first plan to revenge himself on Turpin fails, and his desire for blood, deprived of its primary focus, begins to spill into a misanthropic hatred of all men. "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit, and it's filled with people who are filled with shit! And the vermin of the world inhabit it!" Todd sings with angry relish; while Mrs. Lovett — up to now resigned to her status as provider of 'the worst pies in London' — decides that Todd's bloodlust might well be best put to good use! And very soon, business is indeed booming: "We'll serve anyone ... to anyone!" Indeed!
The entire cast is uniformly excellent: Rickman plays the villainous Judge Turpin with a lip-smacking relish reminiscent of the famous old British thespian Todd Slaughter at his finest (an actor who also played one of the most memorable representations of Sweeney Todd on screen) — lustfully spying on his imprisoned ward through a hole in the wall of her room, and attempting to tempt her boyish star-crossed suitor (Jamie Campbell Bower) with the murky delights held in the dank pages of his extensive library of exotic Victorian pornography! He finally has the young girl thrown into an appropriately dingy and cavernous Victorian madhouse! Helena Bohnam Carter is equally as excellent as the charmingly amoral Mrs Lovett — somehow contriving to look both attractively busty and hollow-eyed & emaciated at the same time! The relationship between she — a lonely but resilient working woman — and Depp's insular, deeply damaged anti-hero is beautifully rendered. The film's bloody finale (as exuberantly gory as any modern horror outing) brings a fateful twist that ends things on a satisfyingly glum note.
In short, this is a fabulously subversive, darkly beautiful horror fantasy that delivers on all fronts. The 2-Disc Special Edition DVD from Paramount offers many tasty supplements including "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd: A behind-the-scenes look at the collaboration of Tim Burton with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter" ; "Sweeney Todd Is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber"; "Music Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd"; "Sweeney's London; The making of Sweeney Todd"; "Grand Guignol: A theatrical tradition"; and much more by way of interviews, trailers, and other goodies.