Yay formal film analysis!
Sweeny Todd has been horrifying people for ages. The story was first told in the mid nineteenth century, about a barber who killed and ate his customers to satisfy his appetite for flesh.
It became a folk tale of the London streets, and it is difficult now to say if there ever was, in fact, a demon barber on Fleet Street. Regardless, it has endeavored—the tale went on to take the form of plays at the Grand Guignol in Paris, early British comic books, an eighties TV movie, a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, and, most recently, a 2007 film directed by Tim Burton.
The film is based most closely on Sondheim’s play, using its plot, music, and characters. Sweeny Todd returns home after spending years in the prison camps of Australia, only to find his daughter adopted by the judge that unfairly convicted him, and his wife presumed dead. Mrs. Lovett, the woman that now owns the building where his home and barbershop once were, takes him in and allows him to keep shop above her meat pie emporium. Before too long, Todd’s anger gets the best of him, and he goes into the business of killing his customers—both to get revenge against society and the judge, and to provide the meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. It is fair to say that this adaptation, with a screenplay based on Sondheim’s play by John Logan, brings the most complexity to the story. Each of the fully developed characters has his own clear motive that drives him through the plot of the story. While the themes of the movie are largely focused on horror, it is the subtle parallels and contrasts in characters that make the movie so impressive. Tim Burton uses brilliant cinematography to get this across, particularly in the use of foreground and background. Color is also manipulated brilliantly, through costumes, scenery, and color correction, to create contrast in the mise en scene during the scenes that characters with differing motives dominate.
Of course, an extremely important aspect of the film and the play from which it was adapted is the music, which, while adding greatly to the mood of any given moment in the film, also emphasizes the differing motives of the characters. The lyrics to these songs also reveal the nature of these ends to the viewer. In fact, it is rare that any goal is directly stated in dialogue—they are nearly always said in song. Furthermore, many of these songs are duets, and in many cases characters sing the same words but with entirely opposite meanings.
Burton’s innovative cinematography is large in part responsible for our understanding of the characters even though they do not always voice their thoughts. The relationships in this film as well as the motives are very important, and through the various shots and angles, we are able to identify the mood of a relationship between characters without either of them saying a word about it. Burton extensively uses a sort of over the shoulder shot—a close up of one character in the foreground, off to the side of the screen, with a blurred long or medium shot of another character in the background, occupying the other half of the shot. These shots usually function as shot/reverse shots, and many conversations occur without the actors ever looking at each other. Particularly enhanced by this technique is the relationship between the films’ leading lady and man, Mrs. Lovett and Sweeny Todd. Lovett is in love with Todd, and when he returns to London from his time as a prisoner in Australia, she takes him in, sets up his business, and eventually goes into a corrupt partnership with him, running their joint barber shop and restaurant. Because of this partnership, Todd is dependent on Lovett, despite his lack of emotion towards her.
Lovett’s goals are mainly monetary—when she realizes that she can use the meat from the bodies of Todd’s victims to make her pies, it is a purely financial plan. However, she also wants a family. Todd is the only one who can provide her with either of these things. He depends on her meat pie business to dispose of his bodies, and on the facilities of his old barber shop—now owned by Lovett—to kill his victims. His main goal is revenge on the man that adopted his daughter after driving his wife to poison herself—but because that revenge depends on having the judge as a victim in a long line of murders, he depends on Mrs. Lovett to eventually obtain that goal. Their motives are interdependent, but conflicting.
Therefore, in the sense that they are dependent on each other, they are partners, and, especially in Lovett’s mind, they are a couple. In one song, it is even implied briefly that they are lovers. However, they are almost never showed in a direct two-shot. All of their conversations and interactions take place either in the aforementioned foreground-background format, in shot/reverse shots, or in a window or reflection. We never see them make eye contact, we rarely see their faces both in focus in one shot. We are shown through cinematography that, though in plot they are together, they are essentially alone.
Unsurprisingly, Todd’s motives also differ greatly from the other characters’, but again, they are closely intertwined. The goal of Todd is to regain possession of his daughter Joanna; Antony, a young boy that he met while sailing home from Australia, also wants to pull her from her current home, but wishes to marry her and run away. The judge, who has adopted Joanna, and whom Todd wants to kill, wishes to marry her himself. Joanna wishes to marry Antony, but really, not knowing her father exists, just wants to escape her unhappy and sexually abusive home with the judge. Lucy, Todd’s presumably late wife who now walks the streets, a crazed victim of self-induced arsenic poisoning, wishes to destroy the business that Todd and Lovett have created.
While all of these conflicts are revealed through the normal plot devices of dialogue, lyrics, and flashbacks, the paradoxical contrasting and parallel nature of them are further emphasized through two things: color and music.
Tim Burton has been using up-to-date CGI technology brilliantly and innovatively since the beginning of his career, and this film is no exception. Green screen and color correction, as well as costumes, make up, and mise-en-scene, make the bulk of the movie seem almost black and white. Though the film is not actually in grayscale, only a few colors exist in Sweeny’s world. There are shades of dark gray and black—in his hair, his clothes, the walls and floors in Lovett’s home, and most importantly, the sky of the “great black pit” that is London. Lighter shades of gray and pure white show themselves occasionally, in the high contrast light that shines in through the large window of the barbershop, in the barber cloak, the shaving cream, and Lovett and Todd’s very makeuped skin. Yellow exists in small places—mainly in the streetlights, a rare flit of the color of Lucy’s hair that Todd remembers so well and recalls so frequently. Most importantly, Todd’s world is accented in red: in the outdoor lights at Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie emporium, in some subtle details in Lovett’s clothing, in the meat that fills her pies, and, of course, in the highly stylized blood that soaks Sweeny’s barbershop each time he kills a customer. Through some magic of editing, almost no other colors stand out or are even visible in Todd’s world.
In contrast, the world of Todd’s past in the exposition flashbacks in the beginning of the film is filled with overly saturated bright colors. Almost every thing is on the lighter shade of the spectrum, a theme radiating from Lucy’s white-blonde hair. The color theme is only disturbed when the officer that comes to drag a falsely accused Sweeny away enters the scene, dressed entirely in over-dramatized dark black.
Back in current London, Joanna, in seeming unconscious homage to her mother, is the only character who dresses in light colors, the sole hue that she will wear. She also spends all her time sitting in a window with white curtains, watching a bright yellow canary sing in a literal cage that parallels her own metaphorical one. Though her situation is every bit as dark as the other characters, by nature of her identity she brings light to the screen.
The world of the judge is as dark as Sweeny’s at most times—after all, he spends his life in the same gloomy weather that dominates Todd’s London. Somehow, though, his world is often a big brighter, a bit more well-lit. His hair is white and his skin is less ghastly than Todd’s, his visage is in shadow less of the time, his face becomes the location of the pure white shaving cream, the lightest colored material in Todd’s world. This lightness vaguely represents the judge’s position in society. As a judge, he is known to be lawful and pious—but the audience, and Sweeny Todd, know that this is not the case. Even though Sweeny Todd is the one killing people, he is the protagonist, making his enemy, the judge, the antagonist by default. It is different and plays with our views of the characters to have the hero all in black and the villain all in white.
Of course, these colors mean nothing out of relation to each other. Left over chronology from the play puts different characters in nearly every scene—almost no consecutive scenes follow the same plot or sub-plot. This drastically emphasizes the color contrast in the mise en scene that follows different characters. Burton translated these transitions, which would take some time on the stage, into quick, sharp cuts between scenes; by doing this, he keeps the movie fast-paced and interesting, but also directly juxtaposes the contrasting scenes. Our mind has no time to stop thinking in black before it is plunged suddenly into whiteness. This contrast, of course, follows the contrasting personalities and motives.
The music is also brilliantly crafted by Sondheim to match exactly the nature of the characters that sing it. All the music relating to Sweeny’s goals is either very dark, lyrical, orchestral music in minor keys, or quick, suspenseful, angry music to accompany his revenge. The songs that Lovett sings about her imagined future life are light and happy, her soprano and the poppy tempo of her tunes, of course, match the vision of happiness she has. Antony’s serenades to Joanna are hopeful and poetic, as are Joanna’s musical musings of freedom.
Again, these themes mean very little until they are compared to each other. The most clever pieces of music occur during the duets. It is common in musical theater for two characters to sing the same song, lending the lyrics to entirely different interpretations, but Sondheim takes this to a new level. Again with Todd and Lovett: their first duet, “My friends,” is an ode from Todd to the razors he finds--the tools he once used to earn a living, and will now use to exact revenge. However, when Lovett joins in, the song takes on an entirely different meaning. She has found a past love, (she reveals in the song that she "always had a fondness" for "Mr. Todd,") and says that she wishes to have a life with him using the same lyrics that he uses to express his future plans of murder and vengeance to his weapons. Later, Todd sings a duet with the judge, his enemy, about "Pretty Women." From the judge’s perspective, the song is a lyrical waxing on the nature of beautiful women, particularly his ward (Todd's daughter,) whom he is about to marry. Todd, while singing the same song, is sardonically and bitterly veiling his resentment for the judge's situation; while they both sing the same words--"Pretty women, are a wonder, even when they leave you and vanish they still are there--" the judge is referencing the satisfaction he has gained from sexually abusing Sweeny's wife and daughter, while Sweeny is referencing the pain he has experienced from the judge's taking the women in his life, the only people he cared for. Later, Antony sings a song entitled Joanna, expressing his desire to marry the girl and his hope for their future; Todd sings along on alternate verses, expressing his regret at loosing the life his family potentially could have had and resigning himself to the fact that they will never be reunited. In Lovett and Todd's infamous duet, "A Little Priest," in which they formulate their plan to cook corpses into Mrs. Lovett's meat pies, though they do not sing the same words, but their respective lyrics, set to jovial music contrast their goals; Todd expresses his need for revenge in a dissonant shout, (“I’ll come again when you have judge on the menu!”) while Lovett is inspired by the idea due to her lack of money to buy meat, (“With the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it…”). The music in this movie is packed with double entendres and is, in fact, often a double entendre in and of its self.
The entire movie is packed with double meanings, and each carefully crafted word can lead to parallels between the motives of the different characters. Luckily for us common viewers, we do not have to analyze each word for what it can mean for every character in the film—Burton shows us the subtleties through his brilliant cinematography and manipulation of color. Each mise en scene presents a different personality, a different sub-plot or goal, and the characters, whether originating in Sondheim or fables in the streets of London, are complex and developed enough to match them.
 In fantasizing about their future wedding, Lovett sings, “me rumpled bedding legitimized.” It is unclear whether or not she is referring to a current sexual relationship or one she imagines in their future.