Behold a cutthroat more fearsome than Jack the Ripper, paying an unlikely holiday visit to the world’s multiplexes in a red-blooded treat that points daggers at the competition. Under Victorian London’s leaden clouds, flickering with distant lightning and fed by black-plumed smokestacks, pulp horror’s demon barber—released after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment to find his wife dead of suicide and his innocent daughter entrapped by a predatory judge—steps back into the spotlight in Tim Burton’s riveting film version of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning 1979 musical to wreak vengeance by giving the closest of all possible shaves to an indisputably culpable clientele.
Burton’s richly atmospheric evocation of the nightmarish metropolis with its grimy alleys and dismal byways is no surprise, but the director redeems past wobbly-toned disappointments like Big Fish and Sleepy Hollow (let alone Planet of the Apes), by working here with iron focus, no doubt responding to the composer’s on-set presence throughout shooting. Together with Johnny Depp’s commanding performance in the title role, they impressively sustain the single-minded momentum of an anvil dropping and succeed in elevating Sweeney’s revenge from mere payback to earth-turning tragedy.
Broadway history tells us that half the opening night audience walked out in high dudgeon at such graphic slaughter and stylized cannibalism; they were equally shocked to find the mayhem delivered in Sondheim’s tricky melodies and mordant lyrics. But adventuresome theatergoers eventually turned the show into a hit that ran for years and then held the stage through a dozen revivals plus productions by at least eight international opera companies. The glory of its long-awaited translation to the big screen is that this reimagining enlarges the work even while it amply displays the courage of its dark-hearted convictions—though with its spraying geysers of scarlet plasma, it’s still not for the squeamish.
Pushing aside his previous cinematic incarnations as gypsy, pirate, and lost boy, as well as his unflappably cheerful Ed Wood and his overly studied Ichabod Crane, an intensely glowering Depp, his eyes burning like coals, concentrates Sweeney’s mounting pain, raising it to psychosis as he sings with tremendous bite and intensity (though sparing certain high notes) a paean to his seven silver razors. As Sweeney’s meat-pie cooking accomplice, a slyly covetous Helena Bonham Carter wears her hair in an auburn rat’s nest and dresses in glamorously careless dishabille, all torn lace and tattered flounces, as she wields her rolling pin to wallop stray cockroaches. The comic songs fall to her, ditties extolling her foul baked goods or guiding Sweeney to choose a likely victim, but she also indulges in a surreal fantasia of marriage and mock family life with the resolutely morose Sweeney, the two joined together as butcher and baker, at least until they waltz into an infernal furnace.
All the actors demonstrate surprisingly serviceable singing voices, including Alan Rickman’s pleasantly reedy baritone. The sole standalone tune, the eloquent “Not While I’m Around,” glows with throat-catching poignancy as delivered by young Edward Sanders (as Sweeney’s assistant), though its closest rival, “Johanna,” overlays dark and light aspects of the same melody, beginning as an outpouring of despair in Sweeney’s voice, then counterpointed as a love song in a young sailor’s rendition. As a shyster purveying “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” Sacha Baron Cohen gets no solo to sing but plenty of room to make his mark, affecting an Italian accent as thick as a slice of lasagna. Garbed as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” Cohen preens in hilariously bulging silk britches, stuffed more tightly than George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” jumpsuit.
Losing the original’s Brechtian stage devices and central role for the chorus, Chicago playwright John Logan’s screenplay thereby blunts the social commentary that depicted the underclass denizens struggling for survival in a rapacious economic system (life still looks rough here, but the villainous judge and beadle seem to abuse their power routinely, modeling everyday corruption and hypocrisy—or is that just another sign of our dark times?). Still, to its credit, the film actually expands the piece’s stage impact by providing clearer articulation of the savagely witty lyrics that flash like knives. From the opening organ jolt that resounds with bone-chilling “Dies Irae” chords, Sondheim and Burton bind us into their tale by cushioning the bold melodies with unexpected orchestral colors and rhapsodic thrusts as the actors seamlessly shift from spoken dialogue to song, without apology. Keeping every performer on point, Burton draws the strongly structured material together to produce a black comedy and still blacker tragedy surging with jugular urgency. It haunts the mind for days.