Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a 2007 film adaption of the play of the same name. It was directed by Tim Burton. To be honest, it's probably one of the last great films he ever did.
I grew up with Tim Burton's films. As a child I enjoyed Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, now both considered classics from an era long gone. So for me, (as the title suggests) Sweeney Todd is the last great Tim Burton film.
Now, as a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland (I even read the books), I had nothing against the live action 2010 adaption. In fact, I enjoyed it. But it was too . . . I don't know. There were too many flaws in it that I just couldn't reconcile myself to. Maybe one day I'll do an article about it.
No. Pretty much everything Tim Burton put out after Sweeney Todd was part of a steady downhill decline, in my humble opinion (though to be perfectly honest, I think a lot of Burton's fans feel the same way). So it being Halloween as I write this, I felt it would be nice to celebrate one of Burton's last great films, a film which I feel is barely even talked about.
Depp's Performance as Todd
I still remember the first time I saw Sweeney Todd. I had cable at the time and it was actually on TV, so I flipped to it randomly. Coincidentally, the film happened to be at one of the best moments of the entire story: Pirelli.
The pretend Italian (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Todd were having a contest, and Cohen's shrill performance was so amazing, I sat paralyzed as I watched. Pirelli was clearly as evil as Todd. He enjoyed callously beating and cutting and humiliating the orphan boy (Toby) who peddled his fake hair growth oil and was being one-upped in evilness by Todd, who beat him to the quickest, cleanest shave.
The part where Todd viciously murders him with a teapot was both shocking, horrifying, and utterly brilliant. I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or run away from my TV screaming. This was the scene that pretty much sold me on the movie and led to me buying the DVD.
And to be perfectly honest? I was surprised that Johnny Depp pulled the character off.
There Can Only Be One Evil Barber on Fleet Street
I mean, you have to look at the context here. At the time when "Todd" came out, Depp was smack in the middle of the Pirates of the Caribbean fiasco. He was reprising his role (ugh, continuously) as Captain Jack Sparrow, and a lot of fans were annoyed because the character had essentially become a super gay flamboyant caricature of itself.
And I say that as a gay woman. It was really annoying how quickly Jack Sparrow went from a snarky trickster in the first film to a complete handwaving clown by the third. There's a time and place for caricaturized femininity. Those films weren't it.
In films like Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, however, it was appropriate. In that film, Depp was playing Ichabod, a scared sissy who went around fainting and squeamishly observing crime scenes as blood squirted in his face. In that context, a feminine character made sense. But as Captain Jack Sparrow? Deep's performance in the first film was fine but quickly got out of hand as the series continued.
Given that all this was going on, it's easy to see how someone might go into "Sweeney Todd" expecting Depp to sashay around wiggling his fingers. Thankfully, that didn't happen. Instead, Depp was a delightfully murderous psycho.
His finger wiggling delicacy was appropriate here because he was a barber, an artist. His job was to make men look good and to do it delicately and with skill . . .
Basically, one would expect a literal hair dresser to be flamboyant (lol....) The problem is that PotC had Depp going a bit overboard. I'm glad to see he recovered from it with this film.
Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett
I grew up watching Helena Bonham Carter on film, from Hamlet to Merlin, and I absolutely adore her. She never disappoints me and didn't disappoint with "Sweeney Todd" either. Her casting in this role was perfect.
Mrs. Lovett is basically . . . crazy. From her own perspective, she's a good person with a "gentle" heart who just wants to survive by any means necessary. She's in love with "Mr. T" and will do anything in her power to have him.
Meanwhile, her meat pie shop is tanking. She can't afford meat for the pies and isn't fast enough to catch cats, so her business is going under when Benjamin Barker shows up, calling himself Sweeney Todd and demanding to know where his wife and child are.
For Mrs. Lovett, the biggest opportunity in the world has just walked through her door. Sweeney Todd is hell-bent on killing people. If she helps him do that, he will marry her and live in evil domestic bliss with her. And what's more, she can use his victims for her pies!
Benjamin Barker returning to London an evil psycho is the answer to Mrs. Lovett's prayers, because it's in that moment that her life begins. She has always been in love with Todd, and now she finds herself on the verge of building a life with him. Her business flourishes, she has an adopted son in Toby, the boy she takes in after Pirelli's murder, and for the first time in her life, the future looks bright.
It makes perfect sense to me that she would lie about Todd's wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), still being alive. Lucy has gone insane and insists on living on the streets. There is nothing Todd can do for her and it would hurt him to know the truth. So Mrs. Lovett tells him that Lucy is dead, not just to protect his feelings but also to keep Todd for herself.
She is ultimately the selfish, cruel mastermind at the heart of the story, not Todd. Todd is a puppet. But it says something about the fake persona Mrs. Lovett puts on (one of kindness and empathy) that Toby, her worker boy, believes that it's the other way around, that she is Todd's puppet when, in fact, Sweeney Todd is Mrs. Lovett's puppet.
The tragedy is that, unlike Sweeney Todd, Mrs. Lovett is decidedly unaware that she is evil. For every terrible thing she does, she has a logical and rational explanation: she was protecting Todd, she was trying to survive, she was protecting herself, etc. She sees no fallacy in anything she does and her only concern is getting caught.
Helena Bonham Carter really understood this character well, and as a result, portrayed her beautifully. It also helped that (I believe) she'd just had a baby before filming "Sweeney Todd." The effect was that she was sort of glowing from the birth for the entire film. You can see it if you pay close attention. She's absolutely beautiful. In fact, this is the film where she was most beautiful, in my opinion.
Anthony and Toby
With all that in mind, it seems all the adults in the story are actually horrible people, just as Sweeney Todd states, basically, during the opening of the film. The only innocent people are the children (and possibly Lucy, who's been reduced to a childlike state).
The aptly named Anthony Hope is a sailor who saves Sweeney Todd's life during events before the actual story. He is presented as pure and innocent. He loves Todd's daughter, Johanna, in the classical romantic way of the prince wanting to rescue the princess from the tower. He sees a young woman trapped in loneliness and despair and wants to help her. It is a love born of pity and very fairytale-esque in that regard.
I remember looking at the extras on the DVD and being very surprised when Bowers expressed fear and doubt in his interview. He said he was worried that he didn't perform well or that his singing was off or something (been years, I can't remember) and I was floored by that because I thought he was one of the best performances in the film.
Bowers and Ed Sanders (who played Toby) are easily the best voices in the entire film because they are choir boys. Sanders in particular had an amazing voice at the time that this film was made. And while their acting was indeed good, they weren't required to be cosmic-level actors. The point of the child characters in "Sweeney Todd" was to contrast innocence with corruption.
In fact, I think the point of the entire story was that everyone eventually becomes corrupted by the world. You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain, etc. I don't necessarily agree with that (being a good person is a choice) but it's what the story seems to be saying.
The Tragedy of Lucy Barker
For instance, had Lucy not poisoned herself and gone insane, she probably would have wound up a bitter, angry, man-hating prostitute who slit men's throats and stole their purses or something. In that time, women were completely at the mercy of men. Women couldn't work for their own living and had to rely on men for support. Women who weren't "pure" (r*ped or widowed, divorced, had children) often found it harder to find husbands who would support them.
Stories like A Streetcar Named Desire are prime examples of what happened to women who couldn't find a man to support them due to their having *gasp* had sex, been r*ped, or were already married once.
When I see men complaining about women today being independent and working, it reminds me that few of them have a grasp of what it used to be like for women to be completely dependent on men for survival. Either that, or they just don't give a s*it and would rather have women back in the kitchen being their domestic slaves, even if it was the detriment of all women in society (probably the latter).
Lucy is a plot device, so she is pretty much the key trigger in Sweeney Todd's evil. She has been destroyed body and soul by the misogynistic Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and upon discovering this, Sweeney Todd has a complete breakdown at the end of the film.
It isn't Johanna that causes this breakdown. It's Lucy. Sweeney Todd doesn't even know Johanna or the woman she's become. He sees her only as a child to be rescued. He doesn't even actually see her until the very end the film, and in that moment, she is disguised as a boy and he nearly kills her.
Had Todd killed Johanna, the effect wouldn't have been as great, largely because he wouldn't even recognize her unless she looked a great deal like her mother (which she does not aside from yellow hair).
Lucy, on the other hand, is someone Todd was in love with and knew intimately for years. She was a lover and friend, a partner, someone he made a home with and started a family with. She represents everything he lost and everything he could have been. And what's worse, she is beyond saving. Her mind is gone and her body appears injured and diseased (lumps and boils on the mouth of some sort while she also walks hunched over in pain).
Lucy had to be tragic because her tragedy directly reflects the tragedy of Todd. They were both innocent, good people too pure for the world, and when that pureness was corrupted, they both went mad.
Unlike her mother, Johanna still has a chance to survive Judge Turpin's abuse and as a result, she represents the hopes and dreams of everyone in the play.
Judge Turpin hopes to (ugh) marry Johanna and live some kind of weird, bizarre domestic fantasy no doubt playing out in his tiny, twisted mind.
Sweeney Todd hopes to take Johanna back from Turpin, but at this point, he's only doing it for revenge. He has no plans about how he's going to care for his daughter and never stops to consider what she wants. Maybe Johanna is now evil and doesn't want to leave Turpin. Maybe Johanna wants to leave Turpin but also doesn't want to live with Todd, who would be a complete stranger to her. Maybe Johanna would be against Todd slashing up his clients and then flushing them down to the meat grinder, etc.
Todd never stops to think of what Johanna wants because at this point, she is no longer a person and simply a tool for revenge.
Then there is Mrs. Lovett, who sees Johanna as a another potential player in her domestic fantasies. She wants to play mother to Johanna and Toby and would probably encourage them to marry at some point, like an unhinged housewife who wants to marry the dog and cat. Johanna isn't a person to Mrs. Lovett either.
Anthony Hope is the only one who sees Johanna as a person and spends the entire story trying to save her, not just for his own reasons (he loves her) but also because he recognizes her suffering and wants to help her.
Anthony has already been characterized as "the savior" in that he saved Sweeney Todd's life before the events of the story. He probably has a hero complex but at least his psychological hang ups come from actually being a good person (perhaps too good of a person) instead of being a bastard like basically every adult in the play.
Even the wigmaker was evil!
One thing I love about Johanna is that having been abused and led a difficult life has made her extremely realistic and a little grim. She is presented as a fairytale princess just waiting to be rescued, but when she is finally rescued, she is not falling over herself in gratitude. She knows that the world is a cruel, cold place and that escaping one of its monsters doesn't mean the end of her troubles.
Life has been good to Anthony Hope, however, and like most people who haven't suffered much, he doesn't understand Johanna's grim mutterings. He's a naive boy, deadset on the idea that "all the ghosts will go away" if only he can take Johanna away from Judge Turpin.
The reality is, the world is full of Judge Turpins, and they are often people in positions of power over others. There is no escaping them. Johanna knows this and tries to tell Anthony by replying, "Anthony, no. The ghosts never go away."
By the end of the story, Anthony and Johanna have become Benjamin and Lucille Barker. Anthony is a naive fool, ripe for the world's many abuses. But with a disullusioned wife like Johanna . . . he might have hope of survival.
Johanna can help Anthony avoid the monsters, and maybe they'll be okay.
It's honestly the best thing about this story, that out of suffering can come wisdom and compassion and that there's hope for the good people to remain good after all.
Maybe that's what the story has been saying after all.