Revenge is a Sweet Meat Pie
by Jordi Gaton
Slowly drifting into 1846 London, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) opens with a city obscured by the dark shadow of crime, corruption, and filth. There begins Benjamin Barker’s revenge against a city where justice no longer thrives. Here in the opening sequence, Benjamin Barker returns to London 15 years after being falsely imprisoned by judge Turpin, his wife raped by his imprisoner, and child stolen after his wife reportedly died in a sanitarium. Through this savage injustice brought at the hands of those in power, the demon-barber Sweeney Todd is born. Pale to the point of death, Sweeney looks on at London singing contemptuously, reviling the city that has taken so much from him. Broken and completely disillusioned with society, Sweeney and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, seek vengeance by both killing and feeding the dead to a city all too ready to consume them in the form of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Through this act, Sweeney hopes to both prove his warped view that people are inherently wicked, deserving of death and show that the city feeds on both injustice and the lives of the poor. In order to highlight and accentuate the brutality of both Sweeney Todd and the cannibalistic London, Tim Burton utilizes both the absence of color and dark lighting to develop metaphors that demonstrate the theme of human savagery.
In the opening credits, a slow ominous cascade of non-diegetic sound dominated by an organ carries the viewer through a CGI sequence that follows a rich, vibrant stream of blood as it travels from Sweeney Todd’s execution chair down to the oven where the human bodies are converted into meat pies. The visual representation of blood builds a strong visual contrast to the dark and pale palate that colors both the city and characters throughout the film. When one compares the deep vermillion seen in Figure 1 with the pale, lifeless skin of Mrs. Lovett depicted in Figure 2, this contrast can be interpreted as revealing that the people of London lack blood and, like vampires, must consume this essence from the weaker, lesser individuals within the society in order to thrive. Interestingly Figure 1 operates to strengthen this underlying metaphor by the placement of the blood in between the gears. By placing the blood in between the cogs, Burton visually depicts Sweeney Todd’s view that the city thrives on the lives of the innocent. The image of the cogs using this blood a lubricant is a visual metaphor for the heartless way in which society takes advantage of individuals, like Sweeney Todd and his family. At the same time, it acts to undermine the value of human life, suggesting that these lives lack value beyond their own utility to keep society running properly.
The pervasive injustice and harshness that rots London to its core therefore, also, acts as justification for the horrible joke that both Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd hope to play on the people of London. With the mantra “waste not, want not,” (Figure 2) they decide to give the people of London the food that they have been craving.
Tim Burton displays this perverse nature of the city by means of the deliberate and artistic changes made to Mrs. Lovett’s shop. In the grand reopening of Mrs. Lovett’s sweet pie shop, the lighting and colors within the film change dramatically to suggest a major enhancement to the lives of the Londoners. As depicted in Figure 3, the pale skin of the citizens changes to a more human and less anemic color as they unknowingly cannibalize their neighbors and fellow citizens. In addition to this sudden influx of color, light illuminates the shop in a manner that contrasts the dark and overcast lighting that persists throughout the film. This stark contrast in the artistic presentation within the film undermines the horrible deceit that both Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett employ on the Londoners. The improvement that these pies have on the visual aesthetic demonstrates that the citizens welcome this change organically. This therefore begs to question whether or not they possess the same monstrosity that has created the demon barber, proving Sweeney’s warped view of human amorality. In a sense by bringing color back to the picture through this horrific act, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett ironically impart a human glow to the characters by means of an act that would be considered inhumane by traditional morality. Therefore, the use and manipulation of both lighting and color acts as a means to demonstrate the unique morality from Todd’s dystopian perspective.
Cannibalism, much like both the lighting and colors utilized throughout this film, is a means to reveal the true nature of man. Through these meat pies, Sweeney Todd demonstrates that everyone within this dystopian London is just as corruptible and possesses the same innate desire for cruelty towards their fellow man. Through the violent spatters of blood and the sharp gasps of air from the dying, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street reveals a degree of dormant cruelty that is inherent within Tim Burton’s dystopian London.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Dir. Tim Burton. Paramount Pictures, 2007. Film.