Sweeney Todd & r & & r & by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & am not a fan of musicals. I wince when someone who was just speaking normally suddenly breaks into song. So it's odd that, as of this writing -- I haven't yet seen all of 2007's films -- two musicals are in contention for making my Top 10 list: Hairspray and this decidedly odd Tim Burton film.
Maybe it's because I was ready for another collaboration between Burton and Johnny Depp, and this turned out to be one of their best. I didn't know much about the plot before I sat down -- just that it was a musical about a barber in London with a violent streak. Now violence in movies doesn't bother me, unless it's of the slasher variety -- I have no need for those films. So I felt chagrined when I realized that Sweeney Todd is a slasher-musical. Two strikes right there.
Yet a few minutes in, the film already had me intrigued. The opening sequence, of Sweeney Todd (Depp), pale-faced, tired and extremely angry, arriving in London by ship after 15 years away, and singing of the dire personal circumstances under which he left, is dark in tone and marvelously entertaining.
It's clear to see, right away, that Burton is in his element here, one of menace and malevolence. And Depp, looking awful under his ever-present scowl, appears to ready to lead viewers on a foul, loathsome and engaging ride.
Mr. Todd, or Benjamin Barker, as he was known years ago, was the best barber around back then, happily married and the father of a baby girl, Johanna. But life as he knew it was disrupted by the dastardly Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who stole his wife Lucy and, with the help of his evil, sneering toady Beadle (Timothy Spall), drove Barker away. Now he's back, with revenge on his mind.
First stop: Todd's former home, a room above what's now Mrs. Lovett's Pie Shop, run by the equally pale Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who proudly sings of making "the worst pies in London." Meat pies, they are, usually made of stray cats.
Soon Todd finds out about the fates of Lucy and Johanna. Soon he reopens his barbershop, after being reunited with a box of his best silver straight-edge razors, his "faithful friends." And soon he puts them to use.
With those pieces and characters in place, Burton lets his cameras fly around the wonderful, stylized sets that make up his Victorian London. They zoom through back streets, they slowly pull skyward from interior scenes, but they always come to rest on close-ups of his actors' faces.
I've already mentioned that the film is violent, but some potential viewers might like to know in advance that the red stuff really flows, and that Todd's methods -- reminiscent of Three Stooges slapstick -- are rather gruesome. But put those pieces together: Tim Burton, blood, violence, dark humor. You can't say that you didn't know what you were in for.
Unfortunately, the songs are too complex, not hummable enough. And Depp isn't much of a singer. But Bonham Carter is captivating and can sing, the world created in the film is all-encompassing, and the emotional effect of watching it -- something between cringe-inducing and captivating -- will stay with you for a long time. (Rated R)