What is black and white and red all over? The rhetorical homonymous question posed by schoolchildren has an answer provided by Jonathan Logan and Tim Burton's masterful adaptation of Sondheim's 1979 staging of Sweeney Todd, where Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury originated the roles of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett in the three-plus hour musical. The movie, although filmed in color, is mostly drained by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski—like the victims of the demon barber, it seems a ghastly black and white, from the makeup on Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp to the demonic white streak in his hair and continuing through the overall stark look throughout.
This morality tale, disguised as a gory and eerily macabre melodrama, delivers the story of abuse of power fueled by lust and covetousness by the evil Judge Turpin of the good barber, Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), and his wife Lucy and their infant daughter. Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) sentences Barker to life imprisonment in an Australian penal colony. Turpin then forces himself on Barker's virtuous wife and becomes patron to their waxing beautiful daughter Johanna. Later, Johanna becomes the object of Turpin's lust, with all London watching without notice or opprobrium.
The story turns when Barker sails to London and finds his old haunts near Fleet Street above the meat pie emporium run by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter—Mrs. Tim Burton in real life). His tonsorial parlor is in ruin, but his silver razors have been preserved beneath the floorboards. He assumes the name Sweeney Todd and commences to avenge the loss of his family and life. Most of the cardinal sins and commandments are broken as the high Christian holidays are polluted by this tale of lust and revenge.
The movie opens with the ship Bounty penetrating the London fog as Anthony Hope, a fresh-faced winsome lad who could easily play Billy Budd, intones the strains of No Place Like London, joined by Todd, and they part to go their separate ways on landing in London.
“I have sailed the world,
Beheld its wonders
From the Dardanelle's
To the mountains of Peru”
Todd seeks out his old haunts, and finds the filthy, grimy meat pie emporium run by Mrs. Lovett, who stuffs him like one of her pies with the tales that his wife has poisoned herself, but Johanna remains a ward of Judge Turpin. She stokes the fires of her own affections for him and dreams of future idyll. Rats and vermin scurry across the pastry table, and the rolling pin is used to crush an unfortunate crawler.
“There's a hole in the world like a great black pit;
And the vermin of the world inhabit it.
And morals aren't worth what a pig can spit.
And it goes by the name of London.”
Lovett and Todd seal a deal to join forces and have him re-open his barber shop over her store, and Todd croons to his silver razors with the tune My Friends. Depp and Bonham-Carter are ideal for these roles, and credibly sing their informative lyrics with perfect diction and strong voice. Some have complained that their voices are not sufficient for a theater, but they are quite serviceable for the movie.
The characters are comely externally, but corrupted by their contaminated hearts and souls. While there is good and evil aplenty, all the characters have dimension and depth. The story is animated by the crimson pillows that flow in vivid colors in stark contrast to the dreary and intentionally faded and bleak backdrops.
Minor characters also provide colorful and outstanding performances. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Signor Adolfo Pirelli, who is introduced by Toby, a waif from Oliver Twist forced into servitude to the unscrupulous Pirelli. As a snake-oil salesman, brightly festooned in blue, he transforms an Italian accent as accurate and enchanting as Barat's central Asian patois.
Rickman's portrayal of Turpin is subdued and subtly evil rather than overtly menacing—it's perfect. His duet with Todd, Pretty Women, is almost as memorable as the solo Not While I'm Around, performed by Toby, and then reprised with Ms. Lovett.
The gore and mayhem proceed as Sweeney Todd pursues his single-minded mission to avenge the injustice he has experienced, and ultimately he hopes to give Turpin one final bloody shave. One wonders about the injustice he is meting out to his victims, soon to become fodder of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, as he relentlessly pursues his quarry.
Anthony Hope is bewitched by the far beauty of Johanna, and has no inkling that she is Todd's daughter. A plot for their escape brings father and daughter together in his shop, which of course ends in disaster, and nearly total disaster. Revenge never works, and usually the forces unleashed harm the vengeful more than those pursued.
When I saw this in a theater soon after it opened, I went to endure the gore and see the production. The cinematography, sets, craft, music, brilliant casting and stellar performances mesmerized me. Some critics have been critical of the singing, but when you see it, listen to the lyric as well as the melody and the delivery. All of them sign well, in tune, perhaps not as full throated as Gordon MacRae or Ethel Merman, but they do not need to be.
Pretty Women and “Not While I'm Around played in my head long after the movie ended, tuneful and heartfelt as well as critical to the evolving story. The fable about power abuse, lust, snake-oil sales, and banishment of the good with foolhardy attempts at revenge and retribution are alive and well in our world. No one is surprised that there is corruption; the shock is that it thrives and is abetted by blind leaders.
I loved this movie and thought it even better than the Broadway play. The gore is a distraction, but part of the story. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter are quite terrific, Alan Rickman is just about ethereal, and Sacha Baron Cohen is just incredible.