Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought
for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible,
so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room
for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is
mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
The film version of the acclaimed 1979 Broadway musical shows what a vast gulf separates the two Scripture passages quoted above. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical play Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is awash in blood, the latter gushing forth more realistically in the film than the stylized effect of the stage version. Tim Burton’s film, though marvelously adapted, is not for everyone—indeed, I held back seeing it for a while after its opening because I had heard how graphic the throat slitting scenes are. Responding to the film is like that to an old tent revivalist’s hellfire and brimstone sermon—after it’s over, it would be inappropriate to say “I enjoyed it.” This has to be one of the most grimmest morality tale ever to make it to our screens. Tim Burton films it in somber colors of grays and whites, with occasional blues, which makes the bright red of the spurting blood stand out all the more.
We first meet Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) aboard a ship returning to England from the penal colony in Australia with his younger friend Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower). Through flashbacks we learn that his birth name was Benjamin Barker and that he had been framed for a crime he did not commit because the powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) had lusted after his beautiful wife. When Sweeney returns to the meat pie shop of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), she recognizes him still after 15 years. Showing him his old apartment on the second story, she reveals (to us) her unrequited love for him by taking from beneath the floorboards the set of silver razors that she had carefully hidden away. She passes on the rumor that his wife and daughter are dead.
Vowing vengeance against the Judge and his henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), Sweeney sings a malodorous ode to the shiny razor he holds out while gazing at it: “At last, my arm’s complete again.” he sings. From the series of horrible throat slashings that ensue, it does seem that the razor is a natural extension of the arm of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Although taken aback at first by his first killing, that of rival barber Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), Mrs. Lovett is easily persuaded to cooperate, quickly taking the dead man’s purse. She conceives of a gruesomely novel way of disposing of the series of bodies—the twisted mind of Sweeney convinces him that because all men have done something bad they all deserve to die ( “even you and I, Mrs. Lovett,” he says, “even you and I “). Similar to the macabre solution in Spitfire Grill, her scheme results in a sudden influx of customers now praising her delicious meat pies.
Sweeney Todd comes close to achieving his goal of killing the Judge when he lures him into his barber chair, but Anthony Hope rushes in, interrupting before Sweeney can act. The young man is engaged in a plot to spirit away the young woman Johanna (Jayne Wisener) whom he has fallen in love with when he spotted her looking out the second story window of the Judge’s house. The lecherous Judge intends to force her into marriage. There is a marriage, but it is that of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, the latter conniving to entangle him while his crazed mind is befuddled with his deadly deeds. Another complication is the young boy Toby (Edward Sanders), once a near slave of Signor Pirelli, and now taken in by Mrs. Lovett. When the curious boy is set to work in the basement grinding up meat for the pies, he discovers some severed hands and feet. Will he become the next victim in order to cover up the source of the meat?
The film certainly demonstrates the horror of unbridled vengeance, the ending be a terrible example of poetic justice. It seems incredible that it would be released at Christmas time, though maybe Christians can see a bit of Herod in the two principle characters, further reason why the Nativity is so desperately needed by humankind. In Clint Eastwood’s great film Unforgiven, the hero comes to an awareness of his past guilt over committing so many acts of violence and tries to settle down to a peaceful life. Sweeney Todd never arrives at such insight, until the horrible consequences of his demented crimes come crashing down on him, and it is too late.
1) How do we see that a person can be changed for the worse by the evil deeds of others? At the beginning of the film the narrator says that when Benjamin Barker’s family was destroyed, “in his sorrow a new man was born.” Not much resemblance to what the apostle Paul called “a new man in Christ,” is there?
2) Those who have seen the play have complained that most of the humor has been deleted from the shortened film version. And yet, what about the following” Mrs. Lovett: You’re barking mad.
Sweeney Todd: The years, no doubt changed me.
or Sweeney Todd (to a potential customer/victim): I can guarantee the closest shave you’ll ever know.
or Sweeney Todd: [holding up his razor] At last my arm is complete again!
Mrs. Lovett: That’s all very well. But what’re we gonna do about him?
[points to hand of a dead body sticking out of a box across the room] 3) How did you feel when Judge Turpin pronounces sentence in court “May the Lord have mercy on your soul,” and the camera pans over to reveal that the condemned criminal is a young boy? What does this reveal about the laws in those days?
4) In another film about vengeance The Count of Monte Cristo the former priest Abbe Faria warns the wrongfully imprisoned Edmund about vengeance, “It’s a meal endlessly cooked and seldom eaten.” How does Sweeney show the terrible results of cooking and eating this “meal” ?
5) Compare the film to another current one, Atonement. What are the consequences of the girl’s spiteful deed, and how do the would-be lovers react toward her?
6) Although we quoted above from the vengeful Psalmist, note that the Hebrew Scriptures also contain warnings against extracting revenge, such as Leviticus 19:18, in which by contrast we are told to love the neighbor. What are some other tales of the endless cycle of death that vengeance can bring—such as Romeo and Juliet or the Hatfields and the McCoys?
7) A good film to counter Sweeney Todd is Martin Doblmeier’s documentary The Power of Forgiveness, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.. Information about ordering the DVD can be found at www.journeyfilms.com.