November 25, 2009

Film Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street / Gavin Tse

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler, Christopher Bond, John Logan
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisener, Ed Sanders
“There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful…”
The story of Sweeney Todd was a story of lust, betrayal and revenge. Sweeney Todd’s mind was bent on revenge after his wife and daughter had been coveted by a corrupt judge, and himself unjustly hurled into prison. The plot was strikingly similar to Alexandre Dumas’s epic novel The Count of Monte Cristo, hence articulating certain espousals of the traditional revenge plot. Yet while there were strong intertextual echoes to Dumas’s novel, Tim Burton’s stylistic play with colours created a gruesome, bleak, gothic atmosphere within the film. The dark, moody aura signified London as a cannibalistic society, “a hole in the world like a great black pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it”. The setting predicated the mode of revenge in the film: the inevitable brutality and ferociousness.

The omnipresence of blood testified to the brutality of revenge in the film – revenge was predominantly direct and physical. Necks were slit, human flesh squished into pastries, and blood spurted in fountains and rivers of death. The blood juxtaposed to the exalted music was highly unsettling, running contrary to audience’s expectations. Burton pushed this gore into his audiences' faces so as to heighten the madness and the destructive fury of Sweeney's obsession with revenge and murder.

Todd’s revenge derived its force from his obsession to regain the past. Todd’s memory of the past was vividly visualized through the use of exaggerated colours in contrast to the somber colour throughout the rest of the film. Yet Todd’s memory was partial and fragmented, and his obsession to recover his past life was ultimately futile, since revenge had altered his personality. Todd’s fragmented self was often portrayed through reflections in broken mirrors, or in distorted reflections from his razor. Such reflections heightened Todd’s fragmented self, his refusal to accept his true self, and his self-hatred as a schizophrenic. This split of self wrought painful emotions to Todd, as dramatised by Burton’s use of colours: lightness and darkness had significant symbolic meaning within the film.

The symbolic shifts between lightness and darkness offered marked the ambivalence of London as a site of possible salvation and trauma, yet London was predominantly presented as a cannibalistic society where people literally ate other people (Mrs. Lovett became Todd’s accomplice and collaborated in a profitable venture where Mrs. Lovett turned the corpses into seemingly delicious meat pies). Justice served no purpose in the society: judges were corrupted and ordinary inhabitants were vulnerable, or else they had to take up arms against their oppressors. This ambivalence was highlighted by Todd’s epiphany - his decision to vent his murderous rage upon his customers while waiting for another chance to kill Turpin. He was indiscriminate about his victims — he believed that he was punishing the corrupt aristocracy for their exploitation of those below them and, at the same time, saving the lower classes from their misery. In effect, the film raised an important question about revenge: in a society where murder was normalized and the sense of justice eroded, can a just revenge be still possible? If revenge involves a sense of justice, is it still possible in such a perverted society where judgment is confounded and all moral values forsaken?

Figure 1: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Figure 2: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Gavin Tse is the Academic Secretary of the Society of Comparative Literature, A.A.H.K.U.S.U., Session 2008-2009. He is also a B.A. Year 2 student majoring in Comparative Literature and English Studies.

No comments: