I’ve been familiar with this musical for a long time. I’ve seen it on stage, I’ve heard the Broadway cast recording, and I’ve seen the Angela Lansbury/George Hearn version on video. I approached this movie with equal parts hope and fear; the hopes were mostly fulfilled, and the fears mostly groundless.
Director Tim Burton understands well the differences between stage and screen, and he adapted Stephen Sondheim’s musical wonderfully to a more intimate medium. Sondheim has expressed a preference for actors who can sing over singers who can act, and that’s what we get here. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter sing well enough (at least, if you already know the lyrics and can fill in the occasional inaudible word), but the acting is outstanding. The interpretations of the characters are both darker and more vulnerable than others I’ve seen: Sweeney is more obsessed, Mrs. Lovett scarier and more pathetic, Judge Turpin less conflicted and more self-aware. One small part is changed in a big way: Toby is no half-wit, but a streetwise, gin-loving urchin who hasn’t — until the end — lost his innocence.
I do have minor quibbles. The relationship between Todd and Mrs. Lovett is too distant for all of the lyrics to make sense, for instance, and Antony is a little too sweet and sensitive. But on the whole the movie works as (take your pick) a revenge fantasy, a dark comedy, or a modern Victorian melodrama.
It might be too early to call, but I nominate Sweeney Todd for the best movie of the 21st century.