Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, made in 2007, seeks explanations, rationalisations and even justifications for the depicted crimes of murder, cannibalism and various pure food offences. This version of the 19th century pot-boiler is a star vehicle and also a musical, a most unlikely format for a ‘slasher’ film. It is an adaptation of the Sondheim stage musical, in which Todd is an honest man wronged by a corrupt power establishment: Judge Turpin (the late, great Alan Rickman) has falsely convicted him and transported him to the colonies so that he, the judge, can abduct Todd’s wife, Lucy. Todd meets Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who tells him Lucy was raped by Turpin and committed suicide, leaving their daughter a ward of the wicked judge, who now lusts for the young girl. In the twenty-first century, Sweeney Todd is not the entrepreneur that he was in earlier versions of the story, but the wronged anti-hero, and the forces of the law and government demonstrate the unregulated libidinism that previously characterised Todd. His plans to trap the judge thwarted, Todd wreaks revenge on all males (females being fortunate not to need barbers) with his cutthroat razors.
The abjection is constant, starting with the opening credits where we see streams of blood, mincemeat, pies going into ovens and more blood flowing into the sewer. The 2007 Todd is an artist: Depp’s portrayal is almost balletic in his use of the razor to slice each throat, and the viewer is treated each time to fountains of arterial blood. There is no polite avoidance of the cannibal question in this film: Todd and Lovett share a song where they speculate on the gastronomic features of different professions (she recommends priests). Todd puts this discussion in a social context:
“The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above! How gratifying for once to know, that those above will serve those down below!”
Despite this class-based comment, they agree to forgo the alterity that their working class roots would demand: “We’ll not discriminate great from small… we’ll serve anyone… and to anyone”. The reification of any adult male that comes into the shop arises not from Todd but from Lovett: he wishes only to waste everyone, to revenge himself on a society that has betrayed and (he believes) killed all those he held dear. She argues that this would be wasteful: “With the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it; good, you got it!”
Todd and Lovett never seem to eat their abject products; the pies being hugely financially successful they can, like the ruling class in Soylent Green, afford better fare. In fact, Lovett is presented as the psychopath in this version. She suggests the pie-making scheme despite her abjection at her rival’s use of local cats, and then, despite the young apprentice Toby’s clear devotion to her, locks him in the cellar with the corpses when he discovers the truth, and goes to fetch the murderous Todd. She is coldly rational like Hannibal Lecter, does no killing herself, and is in fact a perfect reflection of free trade capitalism, adding value to the raw materials that come her way. Todd is persuaded: the crunching sounds outside are “man devouring man my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”
Todd almost kills his own daughter, who is disguised as a boy, finally kills the wicked Judge Turpin, unknowingly kills his wife who is alive but insane, then throws Lovett into her own furnace when he discovers that she could have told him the truth. He once again kills for revenge, while Lovett dies not for her evil schemes but because she hoped to win his love. It is up to Toby, the innocent cannibal (he just loved Mrs Lovett’s pies), to slit Todd’s throat and thereby restore the social balance.
Todd kills and dies because there are no legal recourses for injustice in Burton’s universe. Although he is a ruthless killer, the audience of the 2007 Todd is clearly invited to identify and sympathise with the anti-hero, much as we did the previous decade with Hannibal Lecter. Todd is a killer, but ordinary folks like us who jostle to get a table and eat one of Mrs Lovett’s delicious and very affordable pies are the real cannibals.
Sweeney Todd received three Oscar nominations at the 80th Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Depp, Best Achievement in Costume Design, and Best Achievement in Art Direction, which it won.