by Joseph McCabe
It?s easy to find fault, if one wishes to, with director Tim Burton?s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim?s stage musical Sweeney Todd. For not only had Burton no prior experience directing musicals (unless one counts a couple of quirky production numbers in Beetlejuice) when he took on the task of directing the film, but according to his girlfriend (and Todd star) Helena Bonham Carter (on one of the extras found on the film?s new DVD edition), he actively ?hates? them. Add to that the fact that Burton cast his version of the macabre classic?about the fabled Fleet Street barber who slaughtered his clients while they sat for a shave?largely with non-singers, including Carter and her co-star, Todd himself, actor Johnny Depp, and it makes sense why one would approach the film with trepidation. It?s even harder for longtime fans of the play. I had the good fortune to see the Tony-Award winning revival that ran in New York a few years back, starring the sublime Patti LuPone (the original Evita herself) as Mrs. Lovett, the lovestruck meat-pie maker (essayed by Carter in the film) who aids Todd by baking his victims into her recipes, and Michael Cerveris as the titular butchering barber, and Burton?s production certainly didn?t wash my memories away.
In hindsight though, I may have been unfair towards Burton?s take on the tale when I first saw it last year. Oh I agreed that Todd should be placed on FEARnet?s list of the ?Top 7 Films of 2007?, but almost as a matter of principal. It was after all, a film directed by one of my boyhood heroes, based on my favorite play, and starring arguably the most fearless, if not outright best, actor working in mainstream American movies today. But I couldn?t help comparing the film to what I?d seen on the stage. And that?s something that, time and again, I?ve corrected others for doing. A movie is a movie, and should be judged on its own terms. Dreamworks? new DVD edition of Todd helped remind me of this truth. (And not just because Burton himself points it out on the disc, defending himself against detractors.)
A second viewing of Burton's Sweeney Todd confirmed the production indeed sumptuous, in all respects?art direction, cinematography, makeup and costume design. And the supporting cast was every bit as good as I remember them. It?s hard to believe, for example, that Alan Rickman hadn?t sung at length before on film, so good is he in the role of the villainous Judge Turpin. And Ed Sanders as Toby (Mrs. Lovett?s surrogate ?son?), Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli (Todd?s boastful rival barber), and Jayne Wisener as Johanna (Todd?s daughter, stolen from him years ago by Turpin, and thus setting the film?s tale of revenge in motion), all make their roles their own. This time around, however, I was able to appreciate the restraint in Depp?s and Carter?s performances, and Burton?s equal restraint in directing them. All three have, in recent years, fallen prey to the excesses of their craft?the exuberance of their youth replaced with the shrill histrionics of the Pirates of the Caribbean films or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But here they meld, with precisely timed performances, and, in the case of Burton, fluid, thoughtful camerawork that goes a long way in restoring the faith lost by less-than?stellar efforts like Planet of the Apes and The Corpse Bride. Depp?s vocals may owe a little too much to early David Bowie, and I remain unconvinced that nepotism didn?t enter into the she-still-can?t-sing-well-enough-to-carry-a-Sondheim-tune Carter?s casting. But I can live with them now, another pair of Burton?s beautiful broken children, sitting on a toy shelf in my imagination alongside Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington.
Regarding the two-disc Todd?s special features, don?t expect a director and star commentary. But don?t feel you?re missing much either, for neither Burton nor Depp are known for delivering such tracks. Instead, revel in what is here?featurettes, ranging from eight to thirty minutes, on everything from the three-way collaboration of Burton, Depp, and Carter to the film?s Oscar-winning design to the ?true story? of the ?real? Sweeney Todd to a particularly-intriguing-to-gorehounds piece on the grisly blood effects used in the film. There?s also the nice addition of the Sweeney Todd press conference held last November in the U.K., and an unscripted Moviefone segment with Burton and Depp answering questions from fans--the camaraderie between the two gentlemen appearing as sweet and easy as pie.