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Oppression by unresolved grief

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Sweeney ToddSweeney Todd: 116 minutes. Rated: MA. Director: Tim Burton. Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman. Website.

You'll find a certain archetypal character in most of Tim Burton's films. Many of the defining features are physical: unkempt hair, pale skin, dark eyes, morose expression. Others are social: the character is a social misfit, often introverted, sometimes anarchistic.

At times it's a villain — think Betelgeuse in Beetlejuice, the Penguin in Batman Returns, or the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow. At other times it takes the form of a hero, or antihero, such as Edward Scissorhands, the Corpse Bride, or Willie Wonka from Burton's reimagining of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Good or bad, Burton's favourite archetype is always a sympathetic character (with the possible exception of Betelgeuse). It represents humanity at its most fallen, or furthest removed from the norms of society.

More than simply a reflection on the dark side of humanity, the archetype represents the tragic end-result of oppression by unresolved grief or of rejection-turned-grudge.

Burton's latest film, Sweeney Todd, features the archetype in double. The most obvious representation is found in the title character (Depp), an 18th-century barber driven to homicidal mania after his life and family are destroyed by a sadistic judge (Rickman).

But Todd's admirer and accomplice, Mrs Lovett (Carter), also fits the type. She's a pie maker, struggling to make a living due to the impoverished state of London's lower class and the poor quality of available ingredients. When Todd starts offing his customers, Lovett helps clean up by processing the bodies for pie filling.

It's a win-win situation: Todd feeds his blood lust, and Lovett, with a tasty new item added to her bake-house repertoire, feeds her now plentiful patrons.

Such a hellish alliance can only end badly. But Sweeney Todd is not just a cautionary tale. Todd's ultimate tragedy is that his all-consuming quest for revenge blinds him to the things that could make him happy again. Lovett, on the other hand, gradually discovers the Faustian implications of her blood-soaked pact with Todd.

Sweeney Todd is faithful to the cult Stephen Sondheim musical from which it is adapted (most of the dialogue is sung). But it is also every inch a Burton film.

The lavish period detail and bleak fairytale vision of London's streets is textbook Burton. Even Sondheim's score is reminiscent of the grandly morbid tones of Burton's regular composer, Danny Elfman.

In fact this may well be the most accomplished 'Burton film' that Burton has ever made. Not since Edward Scissorhands has he evoked so vividly the tragedy of his doomed outsider. A lot of blood is shed along the way, but Sweeney Todd finds its way to the heart.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He was previously a staff writer and film reviewer with The Salvation Army's national editorial department. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and the speculative fiction review website ASif!.




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Existing comments

I agree it is stylistically pure Burton. But even Burton realised it was a musical, albeit a very dark one, but didn't seem quite able to adjust his style to allow Sondheim's extraordinary score to do its work. Both Depp and B-Carter were admirably competent but I found myself longing to hear the musical force of, say, a Bryn Terfel, to lift the stagey bloodiness of the story into the tragic domain the music occupies.

Morag Fraser | 31 January 2008  

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