Review: ‘Sweeney Todd’ incomparable 

Tim Burton’s "Sweeney Todd" is a dark, gripping, awesome version of the "Demon Barber of Fleet Street" story on which Stephen Sondheim’s musical is based.

The film uses Sondheim’s music, but it exists in another world, in Burton’s own grotesquely tragic universe, the filthy, dangerous underside of Victorian London — of rats, foreboding, disemboweled bodies turned into pies, the psychological and physical destruction of everything and everybody.

It is grand guignol with music that will bewitch theuninitiated — and probably outrage those who know and love the score. See the movie, but stay away from the soundtrack CD and its amateur-hour performances — get the Broadway cast album instead.

See the movie, but forget what you might have seen before, however stunning an experience that might have been. Sondheim’s musical fills the largest theaters on Broadway and huge opera houses. It’s so strong that it can be played successfully in John Doyle’s miniature version, with a handful of singers doubling as instrumentalists.

"Todd" the movie is bigger yet. It’s the same story, with the same music, but different media, a different mindset and a greater kick in the stomach — but not to be compared with the original. From Burton, take what you get. It’s a lot: Shakespearean, overwhelming, a tragedy so complete that against all logic, there is a sense of catharsis at the end ... or perhaps it just feels good when it stops.

Ignore the lame marketing slogan: "First he got mad, then he got even." This isn’t some high-school comedy. Not just "mad," Todd was utterly destroyed by the whim of a tyrant, being the grown-up version of a horrendously abused Dickensian child. He wasn’t just "put off" by his wife, his child, his livelihood being torn away from him. He became — understandably — consumed with anger on a Shakespearean scale. He didn’t just get even; his obsession with revenge destroyed him and everybody around him.

In Johnny Depp’s mighty performance, he covers up the sun, rises roaring like a handsome Godzilla above his former tormentors and innocent bystanders alike, grinding them all into "the best pies in London."

So great is Burton’s ability and visual grandeur that even a grave miscast in the second lead character cannot ruin the film — the too-young, too-amorous, clueless and voiceless Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who should be a shaded, conflicted, sweet-and-frightful character.

Except for their consistent lack of a singing voice, the other major cast members are fine, especially Alan Rickman’s morose, sadistic Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall’s vicious pig of Beadle Bamford and Ed Sanders’ innocent, much-abused Toby.

The great promise of the film is that it may attract new audiences to Sondheim’s works, less scary, more complete, and more human that they are ... if we were to compare.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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