Tim Burton is a director that is known almost exclusively for both a specific tone and his reliance on frequent collaborators. Burton is almost always known for making anything that was even remotely dark (Batman, Alice in Wonderland) and making the established story darker. But what is usually lost by critics of Burton is that typically the darkness in Burton’s imagination is synonymous with a sense of wonder. Most of Burton’s works are only dark on the outside and essentially are at their heart sweet uplifting fantasy stories with a nigh-quixotic appraisal of imagination. Mostly everything in Burton’s oeuvre is family entertainment and has a good heart. With this in mind his Oscar-nominated musical adaptation Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is actually one of the most surprising films in his filmography.
Sweeney Todd is unabashedly adult, incredibly jaded and cynical with a downright negative and depressing tone throughout the entire film. All of this is within the tone of the work being adapted, but it is much more of a departure from Burton’s general works. Burton much like Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam usually gravitates to works that include an element of magical realism, and unlike the other two directors is much more optimistic. Burton’s heroes usually are able to find meaning in their lives and his films generally end on a happy note. But within one minute of the main narrative of Sweeney Todd, the established tone is in a deeply materialistic reality and there is no hope for any sort of happy ending. While the hopeful Antony sings with delight of “There’s No Place Like London” Todd sings with a jaded and ironic agreement. Thus the darkness of Sweeney Todd represents a cynical outlook on both the world and life itself. It is an odd tone and overall film in comparison with Burton’s other works, but it is also his best film.
Burton’s exaggerated darkness that is the typical art-direction of his films is utilized in a brilliant manner to emphasize the cold and lifeless era of Victorian London. The cold industrial city seems to lack any literal color and life reflecting the empty modern era. The only moments of color come from the gargantuan amount of blood shed which help to emphasize the emotion and energy that is contained in these repressed people. The world of Sweeney Todd has no wonder or joy, but instead a dark cynicism that is at rare points playful but predominantly an emotionally draining tragedy.
Stephen Sondheim’s musical adaptation of the legendary story of Sweeney Todd is a rarity. It is a genuinely dark musical that lacks the typical saccharine level of happiness and simplistic characters. Burton loved the musical and approached the adaptation of the musical with reverence and joy. Burton’s adaptation not only translated the musical excellently for cinema but also brought a fascinating emphasis of the overall tragic nature of its protagonist that is lost in most productions. Most productions emphasize Sweeney Todd as a figure of terror and while he does have sympathetic motivations is mostly seen as a bizarre figure of vengeance. Johnny Depp, however, is able to internalize and bring out a level of depth to his character. Depp’s Sweeney is a man who has been greatly wronged not just by Judge Turpin but the world in general. Burton understands and even pities Todd as he sees not so much a frightening man but a wounded soul. Todd is a person who has lost something sacred to Burton: family. Burton treasures the image of the family and typically it is a family that is able to bring life and joy to the outsider heroes of Tim Burton. What sways Willy Wonka to being a better man is gaining a family. Lydia Deetz is able to find joy in her life as the Maitlands become an integral part of her family. Edward Scissorhands is able to find love and happiness with a family. With this in mind, losing a family is too great a blow to bear in Burton’s eyes. Burton’s Bruce Wayne simply can never connect fully to Vicki Vale or any human as his trauma has made him too sensitive to handle personal relationships. Burton’s Sweeney Todd is seen as justified in hating the world and being violent, everything that made the world and life beautiful had been taken from him when he was separated from his family. The haunting image of Todd smearing blood on a photograph of his wife and daughter demonstrates Todd’s longing for love and his eternal break from the happiness he once felt.
Sweeney Todd’s cynicism and contempt for the world is shared by most in the principal cast. Judge Turpin willingly orders the death of an innocent child and expresses the belief that the boy probably did something to deserve death. “Signor Pirelli” is a jaded con-artist who is quick to try to exploit any opportunity to make easy money. Mrs. Lovett while clinging to a more hopeful attitude throughout the film, still has a sly jadedness to her as she reflects bitterly on her competition using stray cats to make meat pies. Even the young Johanna sings with a bitter and hopeless attitude that no matter what all of the emotional demons will forever haunt her.
The only amount of optimism comes from young men in the narrative. Antony and Toby both imagine themselves as heroic figures who can save damsels in distress. It is even alluded to that in his previous life as Benjamin Barker, Sweeney Todd was a much more naïve man. The imagined heroism and simplistic nature of Antony and Toby reflects innocence. Their songs come across as a mixture of delusion and naiveté. The “heroes” are possessive of the women they idolize and try to ignore repugnant reality around them. Antony is oblivious to butchers and opium addicts that surround London as he imagines that he will redeem Johanna and instantly cleanse her of all her years of trauma. By the conclusion of the narrative Antony remains the wide-eyed optimist while Toby gains a “Sweeney” transformation into an angry force of vengeance.
As for the main theme of vengeance in the narrative, Burton offers something different to the typical revenge narrative. Usually the point of revenge narratives is the lesson that vengeance does not resolve the problems that beset the heroes of the narratives. Most revenge narratives such as Kill Bill, focus on the endless nature of revenge. But Burton’s interpretation of Sweeney Todd offers the suggestion that revenge consumes too much of one’s life. Unlike most versions, Mrs. Lovett is a voice of reason to Sweeney Todd. She frequently tries valiantly to guide her unrequited love to relinquish his quest for vengeance for the sake of enjoying life. Being caught up in the past and dwelling on rage is shown to have violent consequences as Sweeney Todd isolates himself from the loving support and new family he has. Instead, Todd’s obsession with vengeance causes him to destroy the new life he could have had and alienating every form of love that is around him. Revenge is not endless, but is shown to be too obstructive to a productive and ultimately happy life.
Sweeney Todd is a rare musical that is not only genuinely tragic, but is also intellectually challenging. While on the surface it is seemingly logical that the dark musical attracted Tim Burton, but in closer analysis the film is a truly unique work in his career. Most films of Tim Burton are dark fantasies with a surprisingly optimistic celebration of life and imagination. Yet Sweeney Todd is a seductively bleak and dark work that is rooted firmly in a cynical and greatly realistic world. Sweeney Todd is one of Burton’s few genuine tragedies, and is also his strongest film.