A dark cityscape opens Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical, but a baby-faced sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) seems not to notice the gloom. Dismissing all the glories he's seen in his travels, he cheerily decides that there's "no place like London," in a voice chipper enough to force the sun to shine. But Sweeney Todd isn't that kind of musical. It needs a different kind of hero, and Bower is soon forced out of frame by the more troubled face of Johnny Depp, who sings, "You are young. Life has been kind to you You will learn."
Life was once kind to Depp's Sweeney Todd. As a younger man, he was a successful barber with a beautiful wife and child. But the evil Judge Turpin (a perfectly cast Alan Rickman) decided to take Depp's family as his own, and had Depp arrested and deported. After more than a decade in exile, the newly bloodthirsty Depp returns to reclaim what's his, or failing that, punish those who took it away. He soon finds an ally in Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett, proprietor of a filthy bakery famed for "the worst pies in London," which she conveniently makes below Depp's old shop.
The character of Sweeney Todd has been slicing up victims—and sometimes having them baked into pies by Mrs. Lovett—in pulp literature, films, and plays since the 19th century. Inspired by a 1973 play by Christopher Bond, Sondheim's 1979 musical turned him into a pitiable monster whose thirst for revenge went beyond understandable to become sympathetic. Enveloping the tale in dark humor and lush, sometimes frighteningly romantic music, Sondheim's musical made Todd's story into an inspired, tuneful wallow in the darkest depths of human experience. Burton brings his signature visual style, and a pair of stock players for his stars, into this film adaptation, but he wisely follows Sondheim's lead, letting the music and spirit of the original piece show the way.
It goes to some pretty dark places. Though it took 28 years to make it to the screen, this musical about revenge and its repercussions seems fitting for our revenge-steeped times. Depp and Carter commit beastly deeds, but they keep their characters' humanity front and center. Even Rickman's villain projects a surprising vulnerability, and though all three stars have clearly been chosen for their acting skills rather than their singing voices, the earthiness of their vocal performances keeps the film grounded in the grit and grime of a world that grinds up the innocent and the guilty alike. Those who try to turn the crank themselves get the worst of it in the end, but even they deserve a chance to sing about the love and hope that brought them so low.