(director: Tim Burton; screenwriter: John Logan/based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond; cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski; editor: Chris Lebenzon; music: music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; cast: (Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd/Benjamin Barker), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle), Sacha Baron Cohen (Pirelli), Jayne Wisener (Johanna), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy/Beggar Woman), Ed Sanders (Toby); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Richard D. Zanuck/Walter Parkes/Laurie MacDonald/John Logan; DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures; 2007)

“Isn’t cannibalism and the slitting of throats a hoot!”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

All I saw in this grand guignol version of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical-theater piece of a serial-killing barber who slits throats was blood and all I heard was some pretty lousy quasi-operatic singing from the nonprofessional singers (no small problem, since around ninety percent of the film is in song). Director Tim Burton (“Sleepy Hollow”/”Ed Wood”/”Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) gives it style and his own personal bombastic touch but is unable to give it substance or make a strong case for its gothic morality tale (reflecting on cutthroat capitalism, judicial wrongs and Victorian hypocrisy) to amount to a hill of beans. Instead it offers a so-called cheerful black comedy/musical set in the mid-19th century about a London barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) who is distraught that his lovely angelic wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) was ravaged by the heartless malevolent Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Then the powerful Judge had the poor barber sent to prison in Australia on false charges. When Lucy took poison rather than to submit to the Judge’s advances, the Judge then raised her baby daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) as his ward—his ulterior motive was to possess her when she reached womanhood.

The film opens with an unrecognizable Benjamin Barker, renamed Sweeney Todd, returning secretly by sea to London to locate his family and seek revenge on the Judge some fifteen years after being imprisoned. Arriving at his old residence on Fleet Street, he finds there the slatternly widowed landlady Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, the mother of the director’s children), who tells him his wife died. Mrs. Lovett runs an unsuccessful pie shop on the ground floor of her filthy vermin infested place, but has kept the barber’s equipment intact (his barber’s chair and straight razors) in his second-floor barber shop. In his scheme to lure the Judge to the barbershop, Sweeney enters a street contest with the flamboyant huckster rival barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) to see who can give the fastest and closest shave. This draws the attention of the evil Beadle (Timothy Spall), the henchman enforcer bailiff for the Judge, who is sure to tell his boss about the new barber in town. When the loser Pirelli returns to Sweeney’s place to tell him he recognizes him and then to blackmail him, Sweeney commits his first brutal murder. The practical-minded Mrs. Lovett comes up with the idea of making meat pies from the corpse, rather than go through the trouble of disposing the body. This leads to the barber slitting the throats of his customers and Mrs. Lovett building up a thriving restaurant business among the unsuspecting public. In the meantime, Sweeney obsessively plots to lure the Judge onto the barber chair.

This pared away (the stage showstopper number of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” is missing) ghoulish dark Hollywood fantasy pic relies on the fun to come from the grotesque and all the splatter (Isn’t cannibalism and the slitting of throats a hoot!). The film’s greatest asset was Dante Ferrett’s imaginatively appealing claustrophobic sets. The only passable song renditions were from Carter, who in a clear and resonant voice sings the two best staged songs—the cannibal waltz “A Little Priest” and the melancholy “By the Sea.” Two supporting performances should be noted: Edward Sanders is fine as the innocent boy from the workhouse, a character out of Dickens, who helps his protector Mrs. Lovett in her pie shop until he suddenly grows up right before our eyes. While Jamie Campbell Bower is also okay as the innocent sailor who wants to elope with Johanna and save her from the evil Judge.

It’s a joyless pic whose story has been around since the mid-1800s; there have already been prior film versions. This version has great production values but shows no heart, and never gives us anything to get excited over except for the geysers of blood gushing out of those non-differentiated innocent and guilty cut throats.