/ 21 February 2008

Singing for your supper

Johnny Depp sounded like Keith Richards in Pirates of the Caribbean. In Sweeney Todd he actually has to sing and the result is a jaunty mix of Anthony Newley and David Bowie. Depp stars in Tim Burton’s screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s neo-Victorian horror panto, on which critical superlatives more appropriate for the Sistine Chapel ceiling have been lavished. I have to admit to being agnostic; for me, Sondheim’s music, though forceful and fluent, slides through the mind leaving me with a faint hankering for the vulgar satisfactions of memorable tunes.

Depp plays the malevolent serial-killer barber of legend, at large in a gloomy and sepulchral CGI-London of the 1800s or thereabouts (not dissimilar from the London he inhabited playing the copper on the trail of Jack the Ripper in From Hell). Years before, he was a timid, law-abiding hairdresser arrested and sentenced to transportation on a trumped-up charge by the creepy Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who was infatuated with Barker’s comely wife. Now he has escaped, fetching up back in London and intent on discovering the fate of his wife and daughter. Vowing revenge on Turpin and an uncaring world, he sets up shop once again under a new moniker, slitting customers’ throats and shoving the bodies downstairs where they make up the secret ingredient in the meat pies offered to the public by Todd’s ally and lover, the hideous Mrs Lovett, played by Helena Bonham Carter.

Depp’s Todd is credibly older and careworn, with dark circles under the eyes, a Cruella de Vil skunk-stripe of grey in the hair. Bonham Carter looks sallow and dishevelled in a similar way. They are not lovers so much as quasi-siblings, like the White Stripes. Depp never smiles, is given to gazing broodingly into the middle distance and never seems to make eye contact with anyone.

It is lively, but I was repeatedly disconcerted by how muted and even oddly tasteful the proceedings were. The moment Sacha Baron Cohen came on, playing a rival barber, I grinned with Pavlovian anticipation, and yet there just weren’t any funny lines for him to say — or sing. There is something in the flattening effect of the CGI work that abolishes the sense of space — and, with it, the sense of danger. The one genuinely unpleasant image comes when we are looking down Todd’s death chute at one of his bodies, which lies broken and spreadeagled below, eyes staring, and arranged asymmetrically in the frame. For the rest: well, it’s an entertaining, unscary digital ride through the London Dungeon amusement, accompanied by classy music. Likable, but no masterpiece. —