A bit of background for me: I have a particular fondness for the character, since it was one of my more satisfying portrayals for Lytheria's Halloween trick-or-treat a decade or so ago (second only to Gomez Addams--). Georgie and I had seen a very good production of the musical staged by Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre, and, when Lee Schneider announced the theme would be "Victorian London", Georgie and I reserved the parts of Mrs. Lovatt and "The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," respectively. I was provided with a straight razor (edge filed down for safety), discreetly bloody apron and sheet, and barber's basin filled with stage blood. Georgie had apron, mob cap, butcher knife, and a lump of pie crust dough she kneaded thoughtfully while studying the children--. We also had a "Mrs. Lovatt's Pies" menu list full of double-entendre dishes like "shepherd pie" and "ploughman lunch." The best moment for me was when I invited Lee's petite aged mother to sit in my chair--and got back a very tart and forceful "Not bloody likely!" I hadn't met her before and had not known she was a British war bride who knew very well who Sweeney Todd was!
I had good fun researching the character. (What? Don't you research your Halloween characters/costumes?) It is best documented that Sweeney Todd first appeared, as far as can be told, in an English penny-dreadful called "The People's Periodical" in 1846, The story in which he appeared was titled "The String of Pearls: A Romance," and was written by Thomas Prest,who created several other gruesome villains. He tended to base his horror stories partly on truth, sometimes gaining inspiration from real crime reports in The Times, which has given some credence to the urban legend that there was a real Sweeney Todd. However, historical research has failed to turn up any remotely similar case.
However, "The String of Pearls" was adapted as a melodrama in 1847 by George Dibdin Pitt and opened at the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton, with the title "Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and billed as 'founded on fact'. It has been part of British theatre and legendry ever since.
The orginal Sweeney Todd was a murderous robber and serial killer (The string of pearls was part of his loot--.) with no motive but malice. It was not until 1973 that Christopher Bond added the "Benjamin Barker" backstory and revenge motive in his stage adaptation. It was this version that Stephen Sondheim used as the basis for his musical, and which has now been adapted for the screen by Tim Burton.
If not a work of genius, the film is certainly an artistic masterwork of a kind. I am surprised that the term "Grand Guignol" has not featured in reviews, since it certainly partakes of that genre: I assume that this lack is due to the ignorance of current critics, or their presumption of the ignorance of their readers. The Grand Guignol theatre was famous for its viscous stage blood, and that is where "Sweeney Todd" starts off in the main title sequence with a rivulet of "blood" that starts at the barber chair and seeps down through Mrs. Lovatt's kitchens and into the sewers, gradually becoming a torrent that encarnadines the Thames.
The action begins with the song "No Place Like London/A Hole in the World," sung by Jamie Campbell Bower, as "Anthony Hope," the young sailor who has befriended Todd, and Johnny Depp as Todd. All the actors do their own singing: Sondheim's music, although tuneful, goes for the dramatic rather than beautiful, and so does not require beautiful voices to sing it. that said, Depp, Helena Bonham Carter as "Mrs. Lovatt", and Alan Rickman as "Judge Turpin," do very well. If there is occasional lack in enunciation of the often fast and difficult text, it is made up for by expression and interpretation. The broad characters of "Beadle Bamford," (Timothy Spall) and Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) have little singing, and what they do is adequate to their characters. The lover roles of "Anthony", and "Johanna" (Jayne Wisener) are filled with people who can sing prettily when needed. The remaining principal role, that of the boy Toby, is very well done by Ed Sanders, both acting and singing.
Burton's vision of "Fleet Street" is a dead gray world the color of old roadkill, overlain with a colorless sky streaked by black coal smoke. Only in flashbacks is there any true color. Even Judge Turpin's decadent study is subtly dimmed. Depp's Sweeney Todd is a grim spectre returning to old haunts, and resembles a Beethoven gone bad, with brroding brow and Goth white streak in otherwise still-black hair. Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovatt is a frowzy vampyre, hopefully inhabiting the ruin of Barker/Todd's life, waiting for something to turn up.
As "Benjamin Barker," Todd had had a brief idyllic life with his barbering business, his beautiful wife Lucy, and baby daughter, Johanna. All this is lost when Judge Turpin casts covetious eyes on Lucy, and frames Barker and sentences him to transportation for life to get him out of the way. Barker, hiding under the Todd identity, returns to England illegally fifteen years later having suffered terrible hardships, including shipwreck, hoping to recover some of the pieces of his past life. His hopes are dashed when Mrs. Lovatt, who has her own not-so-ulterior motives, reports that Lucy was raped and abandoned by Turpin, and then took poison, and Turpin adopted Johanna as his own ward.
Anthony, having seen Johanna in the window of Turpin's house, has fallen in love with her and conspires with Todd (not knowing he is her father) to elope with her, which goes wrong when he blurts out part of the plan in Todd's shop, not knowing that the man being shaved (and seconds away from death) is Turpin. Being cheated of both his revenge on Turpin and recovery of his daughter sends Todd into a spiral of madness in which he seeks revenge on the entire world, with Mrs. Lovatt's willing assistance.
The movie is done with close-up intimacy that the stage cannot match: consequently, the musical numbers are limited to the principals, and the choral numbers "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," "God, That's Good," and "Hold Your Razor High, Sweeney!" have been (ahem) cut, although the latter recurrs as the leitmotiv of Sweeney's revenge and the others are not really missed. The close-up intimacy also makes the scenes of murder quite "in-your-face". After all, when throats are cut, blood is going to gush and spray, and so it does. In addition to the expectable gargles and gasps, the soundtrack also reproduces the crackle of cartilage being cut. In short, not for the faint of heart. I noticed that, although audience members laughed quite vigorously at the early black humor, they fell silent as the story built to its horrific conclusion. However, I also noticed that no one left--.
Virtuoso performances by Depp, Bonham Carter, and Rickman. What I think of as the 'seduction scene', the Todd-Turpin duet "Pretty Women", was particularly good--. Excellent support by Spall as the smarmy bully henchman and Cohen as "Pirelli". "Pirelli" is the only character who initially seems 'over the top', but it turns out there is reason for that. We have been following Timothy Spall's career for many years, and he really is a fine actor. I hope we will get to see more of his 'straight' roles over here eventually. That said, "Beadle Bamford" is juicily done and a character quite unlike "Wormtail." Young Ed Sanders, in his first film role, shows great promise and holds his own as the innocent boy "Toby", who is, at least until the end, seemingly the only sane one of the lot.
Highly recommended for the adventurous. The film is rated R for violence (buckets o' blood!) and definitely not for the impressionable.