Sweeney Todd & Total Depravity
When I originally saw Sweeney Todd at the theatres in December 2007 my first thought was, “I need to preach a sermon on this.” So in this season leading up to Halloween I thought I’d relive some of those original thoughts and share them with you. Also, if you are looking for a good movie to watch this October, I’d highly recommend Sweeney Todd (although it’s not for everyone!)
At the outset of the story a sailing vessel arrives at a harbor in London. Filled with enchantment, a young man named Antony sings of the wonders of the world and asserts, “There’s no place like London!” At that moment Sweeney Todd confirms this conclusion; highlighting the evils of the world. “The cruelties of men are as wondrous as Peru,” Todd sings, “But there’s no place like London!” For Todd, London is a place where “its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit.” The juxtaposition of Antony’s enchantment and Todd’s disillusionment sets the stage for the course of the movie. Sweeney is entering London for the first time in 15 years due to an act of injustice done against him that resulted in his expulsion from the city. Prior to his exile, Sweeney Todd was a young barber with a wife and daughter. As the narrative unfolds, we find out that he was exiled from London because the evil Judge Turpin desired his wife Lucy. Stealing her and their daughter Joanna, the Judge expelled Todd to a far away prison.
Originally, Todd was returning to find his wife and his daughter. Yet when he learns that his wife poisoned herself (although unbeknownst to him she didn’t die from this), Todd assumes his wife is dead and is quickly filled with revenge against the wicked Judge. Todd eventually meets a woman named Mrs Lovett who owns a pie shop, though Mrs Lovett admits in a catchy song that she has “The Worst Pies in London.” Interestingly, the Meat Pie shop is just below the second floor where Todd used to run his barbershop. He realizes that he should take up his former profession as a Barber in order to lure in clients, and eventually Judge Turpin. What’s more, Todd and Mrs. Lovett conspire to use the dead bodies for the Meat Pies! Now, admittedly this sounds a tad gross. But there is something profound about the way that the two of them rationalize this twisted behavior.
Sweeney Todd: What’s the sound of the world out there?
Mrs Lovett: What Mr Todd, What Mr Todd, What is that sound?
Sweeney Todd: Those crunching noises pervading the air…
Mrs Lovett: Yes Mr Todd, Yes Mr Todd, Yes all around!
Sweeney Todd: Its man devouring man out there, so who are we to deny it in here?
The connection between cannibalism and the way in which people are capable of treating each other in the world cut me straight to the heart. For all the disgusting imagery of the scene, nothing was more impacting to me than the conviction I felt. The Apostle Paul also used this sort of imagery to describe the way in which our freedom in Christ could be abused. We are to love one another because “if you bite and devour one another” this will lead to “being consumed by one another” (Gal 5.15).
Throughout the movie there are other instances where man’s depravity is clearly portrayed. In one song Sweeney Todd sings the refrain, “We all deserve to die.” One scene that captures this well takes place in a courtroom in which Judge Turpin is condemning someone to death by hanging for their “persistent dedication to a life of crime.” At first the viewer is unsure who is being condemned. After the pronouncement is made the camera reveals that a young boy is the one being tried; someone who looks like a cute little Huckleberry Finn! Directly after this sequence the Judge’s friend Beedle approaches:
Beedle: Thank you, your honor, just the sentence we wanted.
Judge: Was he guilty?
Beedle: Well if he wasn’t he surely did something to warrant a hanging.
Judge: What man hasn’t.
The sequence here is actually quite moving. Even coming from a corrupt Judge, there couldn’t be a truer statement about humanity’s depravity.
The Blindness of Revenge
I’m also further impressed by the unfolding story of revenge and how Todd loses track of his original goal in returning to London. Todd knows that the Judge has his daughter locked up, yet, rather than pursuing his daughter, he becomes so consumed by revenge that everything else fades away around him. At one point near the end of the movie Todd sings a song about his daughter for the first time. During this scene, Todd executes a series of citizens who have come in for a “shave,” thus it is easy for the viewer to miss the subtlety of the lyrics. In this song Todd sings, “And though I’ll think of you, I guess, until the day I die. I think I miss you less and less as days go bye.” His heart had clearly begun to grow cold as he began to exact his revenge on the “evil people” of London. More subtly, when Antony approaches Todd and tells him where his daughter is, Todd responds, “I’ve got him,” referring to the judge. To which Antony responds with a lack of unclarity, “Sir?” Then Todd quickly rephrases, “We’ve got her.” The subtlety demonstrates that his original goal had been completely surpassed by his desire to kill the Judge.
The movie ends with the themes of depravity and revenge melding together. Without realizing it, Todd accidentally kills his wife whom he presumed was dead. He also nearly killed his daughter Joanna without realizing it. Yet after Todd’s revenge is accomplished, and the Judge is finally dead, Todd realized that the woman he killed was actually his wife. As he held her he sang:
There was a barber and his wife
And she was beautiful
A foolish barber and his wife
She was his reason and his life
And she was beautiful
And she was virtuous
And he was….
At that moment Todd completely stops. Holding his dead wife he looks out into the distance and for a brief moment a glimpse of remorse and repentance runs across his face. At that moment however he was killed by a young boy who had seen it all happen. This is where the movie ends. There is no happy ending and there is no finality to the story of Joanna and Antony. We are not told if they survived, if they made it out of London, lived long lives together, or anything else. Some viewers found this disappointing. Yet its as if the movie itself had become so consumed by Todd’s revenge that the narrative finds its demise along with Todd’s. To my mind, the movie depicted human depravity in such a way that pointed me to God’s forgiveness and grace rather than away from it (as some might suspect). I find the movie to have an antithetical redemptive quality. The story of Sweeney Todd ends without hope and without redemption, yet my story continues. Sweeney Todd points a critical finger at the world and diagnoses it as sinful, yet it never offers the cure for man’s depravity. However, when I first watched it I was filled with worship when I thought about the depravity that God had saved us from.