Burton’s favourite leading man Johnny Depp (Oscar nominated for the role) plays Benjamin Barker, returned from imprisonment overseas with a strange light in his eyes. Years before, the power-mad Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), took a shine to Barker’s wife Lucy, so hatched a plan to ship him off and steal her away. Now the wronged man is back, returned by ship with best mate Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) to his old, despised streets, seeking out his lost wife and daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener). Back on Fleet Street, having renamed himself, Sweeney Todd meets the scatterbrained Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), a similarly pale-faced, smudgy-eyed sewer-rat, to discover that Lucy has killed herself and the now-teenaged Johanna has been imprisoned by Turpin and his sidekick Bamford (Timothy Spall) in a mansion house on Hyde Park. An encounter with a former acquaintance Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) brings Sweeney back to his old trade, setting up shop over Mrs Lovett’s pie emporium, with his ‘arm complete’ by his old set of silver straight-edged razors. Then, bloody mayhem.
Burton’s already fantastic world view might have been swallowed up in the artifice of a stage musical, but the director displays a sure touch in an unfamiliar landscape, burnished considerably by superb contributions from production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Colleen Atwood. The film looks fantastic but there are long moments of lumpy pacing, in part because everything must stop while the songs are sung. Burton and his cast gamely try to turn these unavoidable longeurs into true show-stoppers by introducing the riper aspects of his story – murder, cannibalism, deceit – in delicately choreographed scenes, some of which work wonderfully and some of which simply don’t. At times the staging feels enclosed, introducing an unnecessary air of stage-bound claustrophobia despite Burton’s compelling staging and coherent vision. He is at his best when he sates his appetite for the macabre, indeed the film is far more vicious and bloody than expected, even if the splashy murders are presented as sickly cartoons and the manufacture of the pies given a cursory, comical treatment.
The perfectly-chosen cast sing the many songs (abridged from the original to fit the time-frame of a screen adaptation) with considerable gusto, even if there are variations in vocal talent. It is odd at first to see Depp open his throat in an unsteady, half-spoken warble, but he soon settles, helped by the ever-present, energetic Bonham-Carter. A scene where she imagines a happy-ever-after for the gruesome couple is a delight, followed immediately by a darkening of theme and tone as Sweeney starts slashing necks. The final section, a confrontation between Rickman’s delightful villain and Depp’s desperate anti-hero, is as bleak and cynical as it is finely-wrought and dramatically satisfying. Blackly funny, beautifully crafted and decidedly weird, Burton’s morbid musical might not hit all the right notes, but there is still a lot to enjoy.