I'll never forget the feeling of seeing Edward Scissorhands at the age of six on a huge screen at Showcase Cinemas in Lawrence, MA. While my fellow first graders couldn't stop quoting Home Alone, Tim Burton's holiday Goth fantasia opened my mind to concepts I didn't yet have the words for - expressionism, surrealism, representation - and, through my identification with Burton's misfit protagonist (played to heartbreaking perfection by Johnny Depp), made such a strong emotional impact on my developing understanding of cinema that movies with talking dogs and profane, crotch-punching kids no longer did the trick. It's one of the defining films of my cinematic experience, which makes the presence of one glaring, ugly misstep - Edward's vicious murder of the jock antagonist and Burton's soft-pedaling of the scene - all the more painful. The older I get, the harder it is to look past the fairytale Columbine, introduced but never properly explored, that festers in an otherwise beautiful film like roaches in Jeffrey Beaumont's lawn.
Burton's best work has honestly addressed this underlying sense of misanthrophy - think of the sympathetic monsters in the underestimated Batman Returns, the lovingly constructed family of social deviants in Ed Wood, the entirety of Mars Attacks. But in recent years, Burton's maddeningly uneven outpout has undergone a gradual but unmistakable mainstreaming, perhaps spurred on by the commodification of his once-distinct cinematic voice (thanks to Hot Topic, anyone can be misunderstood for $16.99). This softening of Burton's rough edges culminated in the awkward father-son reuinion at the end of the disappointing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that reduced the entire psychological landscape of Burton's movies to lame, Dr. Phil-esque "daddy issues" that also felt like a cynical jab at the far richer father-son relationship of his previous film, Big Fish. So it was with great trepidation that I approached Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a seemingly perfect match of director to material (Stephen Sondheim's grand guignol masterpiece), for fear that the result would be well-crafted, obvious and predictable (particulary since star Johnny Depp, perhaps the most talented actor of his generation, has been bordering on self-parody lately). I must report with great pleasure that Sweeney Todd far surpassed my expectations - it's almost exactly the film that I'd always hoped it would be, a marvellously dark and vicious adaptation that retains the musical's narrative and thematic complexity while also benefiting not only from Burton's style (in full Bava-worship mode here) but also his obvious affinity for his murderous protagonist. It's ruthless, unsparing and a bold return to form.
From the controversial omission of the musical's opener "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," Burton strips away the theatrical conventions of the show - for a Broadway adaptation the film is remarkably intimate, located entirely in the vengeful barber's shop, the festering pie shop of his devoted accomplice Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and the funereal streets of 19th-century London. This choice is jarring at first for fans of the musical (I'd always imagined the ballad performed by a chorus of dead-eyed ghouls in a series of sharp, Fosse-esque cuts), but it ultimately highlights how Sweeney's greatness has little to do with elaborate staging or classically trained baritones. As the wronged barber plots his revenge against the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the film becomes a particularly bloody penny dreadful that never condescends the story's pulpier aspects, honoring its underlying weight. The musical (much like David Lynch's The Elephant Man, released the following year) comments on the industrial revolution's dehumanizing impact on western society through the microcosm of one character's personal transformation, Sweeney's contempt for humanity growing in proportion to the profitability of his crimes (shades of Hot Topic?). With this in mind, the monochromatic visual design and the muted, vampiric performances make perfect sense - these characters belong to a world that might collapse before they can destroy each other. By the time Sweeney declares all of humanity deserving of death in "Epiphany" (the musical's high point), I wasn't thinking about the lyrics snipped or the plot points condensed - I was completely absorbed.
A funny thing about Johnny Depp's performance: sampling the soundtrack on iTunes before seeing the film, I worried about Depp's apparently flat singing, and I still have little desire to own the soundtrack. But married to the performance, Depp's, low-key approach (reminiscent of early Bowie) works wonderfully. My fear that Depp would turn Benjamin Barker into a caricature is unfounded; Depp internalizes the character's torment in a surpisisingly understated performance, communicating volumes with a glance and reminding us of his extraordinary ability to create characters that have a larger-than-life quality while never sacrificing their humanity. But my favorite performance was Carter's - her Mrs. Lovett isn't the crowd-pleasing, demented old ham made indelible by Angela Lansbury (again, what works on stage and on film are two different things). The delusional optimism of Mrs. Lovett's dreams of wealth and prosperity are betrayed by the muted defeat in her voice; for all the film's bloodletting, its creepiest (and funniest) moment is a montage of happy seaside tableaux, Mrs. Lovett's banal dreams punctured by Sweeney's constant gloom. They're aided by Alan Rickman as the ghoulish, self-loathing Judge (Rickman's fantastic, even if he's the worst singer in the movie), Sacha Baron Cohen as the street mountebank Pirelli, and Jayne Wiesener and Jamie Campbell Bower as the sweet young lovers whose seemingly negligible role in the plot is, I think, frequently misunderstood. And Ed Sanders as young Toby is a real standout; the role is traditionally played by adults out of neccessity, and having a real child in the role adds a new, disturbing layer to the experience.
The film is, naturally, a visual marvel. Burton and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski find a number of inventive ways to distort and refract Depp's face as Sweeney's descent into madness progresses. The production design by Dante Ferretti is typically sumptuous even as it creates a feeling of isolation and despair reminiscent of Burton's Gotham City. Of course, Burton is always a master of creating these baroque cinematic worlds - the wonderful surprise of Sweeney Todd is that what could have been an emotionally inert triumph of design feels insistently, angrily alive. Burton's fetishes, from the Argento-red blood to the overripe bosoms bound in Victorian/S&M garb, are on display here, with an unapologetic glee unseen in years. Burton's films are frequently described as "dark," a misleading qualifier as most of his films are only superficially dark, his outsider posturing masking a puppylike need to please. Sweeney Todd is deeply, unapologetically dark, and the result is revelatory; it's a movie that makes you feel so bad you can't help but sing.