Sweeney Todd: Defiled Eden

7 May 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

 -John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1:254-255

The human heart is homesick.  Homesick for the memory of something beautiful, now lost.  The Hebrew scriptures tells us of Eden’s paradise: a land of unrivaled perfection and beauty, though a land defiled by man’s wickedness and through this wickedness man is himself a broken creature.

The portrait of the defiled Eden is present all around us, though on occasion this archetypal story finds itself expressed through more direct means such as the entertainment industry.  The following is a review of Tim Burton’s theatrical adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the 1979 musical by Stephen SondheimWhile it is doubtful that any of its creators or actors intended as much, we may nonetheless find in the film a haunting picture of a defiled Eden: in the city itself, in the Barber shop and, most significantly, in the twisted character of Todd.

The City: “There’s No Place Like London”

In flashback scenes we see a world of vivid color, of sunlight and flowers.  It was a world where we find Benjamin Barger, a happily married man until the town’s evil judge (the serpent in the garden?) takes him away to gain access to his wife.  Now, the city of London has been stripped of its joy, and the flowers of earlier times have been replaced with the smoke plumes of industry.   It is, in Todd’s words, “a whole in the world like a great black pit.”  Scenes from the city depict prostitutes and swindlers, the wretched vermin of urban decay.  While once a picturesque scene of a happier life, the city of London has become one of street corner charlatans, caged birds, and the corrupt arm of the gallows.

The Barbershop: “Soon you’ll drip rubies”

Similar contrast exists in the Barbershop itself.  Again, in flashback, Burton paints an idyllic scene with bright wallpaper and a child’s cradle.  When next the room is seen, all that remains is a barber’s chair.  The rest of the room is in a deeply advanced state of decay, and in the cracked mirror (defiled image?) Todd has only a vision of his own fractured life.

But it is just past the midpoint of the film that the story takes a major turn.  Now that Todd has begun the slaughter of his patrons, he and his landlady would be forced to find a new means of disposal.  Their solution is presented to them via the sounds of the city’s streets: “It’s men devouring men, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?”  Thus the corruption of the outside world is ultimately reflected in the cruel machinery of cannibalism within Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop.

Sweeney Todd: “I will have salvation”

Benjamin Barger was once a happily married man, whose only crime was of being “naïve.”  After the judge’s cruel intervention, Barger became aware that “the cruelty of men is more wondrous than Peru.”  “Barger’s dead,” he tells his landlady.  “It’s Todd now, Sweeney Todd.  And he will have his revenge.”  Depp’s performance infuses the titular character with a prepossessing hollowness that fills every scene.

Whatever humanity there was to be found in Todd has all but vanished by the end of the first act, where he triumphantly extends one of his razors with the triumphant proclamation, “At last, my arm is complete again!”  His razors, so precious to him as to deafen him to his landlady’s romantic overtures, had become his most valuable treasure, his “friends,” from which will “soon drip rubies.”

But when the blood flows, it flows not in drops like “rubies,” but in obtrusive, colorful spurts that splatter the scenery, the victim and even the camera lens itself.  There is an almost cathartic quality to the act, as Todd pursues “salvation” through his quest for vengeance.

Todd lives in a world he characterizes as “a great black pit,” all the while that when you stare into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you.  Blind to any chance at a future and a normal life (a life offered to him through a fantasy sequence – again with splashes of vivid color – wherein he marries his landlady), his hope for any sort of future only becomes further mired in the grotesque.  By focusing on the past rather than pushing forward to the future, the cycle of violence is perpetuated by the young man hired to work in the pie shop (enabling Cain?).  The final scene is Todd’s slit throat dripping across the face of his former wife, both now dead as a result of the ongoing saga of retributive bloodshed.


But is Todd really that different from you or I?  The temptation is to dehumanize those who commit such acts of violence.  Yet we cannot afford such distinctions when peering through the lens of the human heart.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us…But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

This line is brought into sharp focus through the arts, including the present film.  Writing on this fascination with the horror genre, Stephen King suggests that “The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of—as both Albert Camus and Billy Joel have pointed out, The Stranger makes us nervous… but we love to try on his face in secret.”

This macabre musical presents audiences with a cautionary portrait of what this kind of evil can do unchecked – metastasizing into a dehumanizing cruelty expunged only through the voluminous shedding of blood.  All the more haunting is the sense of style Burton brings to the screen – making every act of bloodshed a nightmarishly mesmerizing spectacle.

Yet such cruelty can hardly be limited to the world of cinema.  A recent writer for the Houston Chronicle describes similar films (specifically No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) as “…epic, unblinking etudes on evil in the hearts of men … You won’t find that ugly thing inside me, no sir. Most major monotheisms hold that everyone is capable of evil — since Adam and Eve, it’s been kind of a problem — but the species persists in believing otherwise. …So maybe evil doesn’t always lope into town with a gun and a taste for blood. Sometimes it crawls up from the depths of humanity, and sometimes it looks like us.”

Eden has indeed been lost, and man’s humanity has been tarnished, fractured and broken.  Perhaps it is only in the face of such a defiled Eden that man can truly recognize his need for redemption, and that salvation may be found – once for all – in the shed blood of the Savior.

7 May 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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