Danielle Wais on London & Monstrosity

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) tells the tale of the life of Benjamin Barker, an innocent barber, and his transformation into Sweeney Todd, a murderer.  After returning to London from prison, Todd teams up with Mrs. Lovett, an unsuccessful bakery owner, and opens his new “barber shop”.  Together they wreak havoc on London to seek vengeance for all the oppression they have endured.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and its theme song, There’s No Place like London depict London as a city of filth, poverty, and corruption (see below).  Furthermore, they demonstrate how these perils of society convert Benjamin Barker into a ruthless killer.

There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it / and its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit / and it goes by the name of London… / At the top of the hole sit the privileged few / making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo / turning beauty to filth and greed… / I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders, / for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru / but there’s no place like London!

Through the setting and song lyrics, the movie illustrates London as a grim and filthy place.  In the opening scene, the ominous fog and dark clouds envelop the Thames River and its surroundings.  Amongst the darkness, the Tower Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral stand prominently as representations of the city.  This mixture of fog and London architecture thus symbolizes the evil that envelops the city.  The movie echoes similar representations of London and the Thames River that already exist in the art world.  George Vicat Cole’s Thames of London, 1888 [Figure 1] illustrates the similar ways in which the film and London painters symbolize the Thames River.  In this painting the smoky clouds look as if they are shrouding the city of London, which is recognizable because of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background; therefore, the painting shares the movie’s portrayal of London as a dark and obscure place.  The film not only represents London as gloomy but also as physically dirty.  Throughout the film (specifically in the background of Mr. Todd’s shop) there are chimneys and factories depositing smoke into the air.  This continuous pollution exemplifies the extremely unhealthy air quality in London.

Fig. 1. George Vicat Cole. "The Pool of London," 1888.

Fig. 1. George Vicat Cole. “The Pool of London,” 1888.

In addition, the movie exposes the foulness of the city when Mrs. Lovett and Todd travel through the sewers.  The sewers display London’s grandeur of architecture; they represent a modern and magnificent advance in hygiene.  However, the rats, which signify the utmost filth, seek refuge in the sewers.  The image Ratcatchers by Henry Mayhew (1851) from London Labour and the London Poor [Figure 2] suggests the prevalence of rats lurking in the sewers, by exposing the tactics in which men have to exterminate them.  This image displays a paradoxical relationship of beautiful archways of the sewers in the background and the man grasping a vicious rat in the foreground.  This combination turns something of beauty into a disgusting fortress of filth.  Therefore, the film reveals the grotesque underbelly of the city of London.

Fig. 2. Henry Mayhew, "The Rat-catchers of the Sewers." Illus. in "London Labour and the London Poor," 1861.

Fig. 2. Henry Mayhew, “The Rat-catchers of the Sewers.” Illus. in “London Labour and the London Poor,” 1861.

The song lyrics from “There’s no Place like London,” which Todd sings, also contribute to the grand picture of London as a dirty place.  The lyrics refer to London as “a great black pit”.  The use of the word “black” suggests the color of the city due to the pollution and the word “pit” negatively connotes a dumpy place.  In other words, this line conveys the message that London itself is a disgusting abyss.

The dirty setting along with the characters’ personal backgrounds helps describe the poverty prevalent in London.  The notion of poverty is illustrated by the stark difference between the living conditions of the upper and lower class.  The rich side contains beautiful marble buildings and finely dressed people as seen in the setting outside of the house of Judge Turpin, a high class society member.  In contrast, tattered houses and crowded streets encompass the poor side where Mrs. Lovett lives.  This reveals the suffering of the working class in comparison to the bourgeoisie.  Mrs. Lovett’s history serves as an example of the common life of poor individuals.  She is an impoverished shopkeeper whose meat-pie business suffers because she cannot afford fresh meat.  In addition, she lives in a bug-infested home in a filthy, poor part of town.  This exposes the link between the dirtiness of the city and the poor people.  Her house and story of failure (due to her lack of funds and inflation) show the huge role that poverty plays in London society.  Toby, a young slave boy, also displays a life of hardship.  Society forces Toby from a young age as an orphan to work in order to survive.  He even tolerates whippings so he will not be cast off in the streets – homeless.  Luke Fildes’ Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874 [Figure 3] portrays  poverty in London.  The painting shows how the poor civilians of London wait in lines to have a place to sleep because they cannot afford a place of their own.  It reveals the extreme issue of poverty in which a large portion of the city’s population is displaced because they cannot profit off of London society.  Furthermore, the lyrics to “There’s No Place like London” refer to the characteristics of poverty.  The song represents the lower class as the “vermin in a lonely zoo”.  Vermin are dirty creatures that signify the lowest form of life.  Yet, the song uses them as a metaphor for the poverty stricken people.  This displays the upper class’ image of the poor.  The term, “The lonely zoo”, stands for the concrete jungle in which these poor people inhabit.  Referring to their home as a zoo reveals the animalistic actions one must take to survive in the city of London.

Fig. 3. Sir Luke Fildes, "Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward," 1874.

Fig. 3. Sir Luke Fildes, “Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward,” 1874.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street not only depicts the poverty in London, but it also exposes the corruption that causes this class struggle.  Besides the contrasting appearances between the rich and poor sides of town, Barker’s downfall directly results from corruption within society.  Judge Turpin covets Benjamin Barker’s wife, Lucy.  Therefore, he utilizes his power (due to wealth and status) to exile Benjamin to prison and steal his wife and child, Johanna.  Similarly, once the judge discovers Atoney, the sailor boy, plotting to free Johanna he becomes livid.  The judge decides to imprison Johanna in a madhouse in effort to stop Atoney.  Thus, this reveals the basis of the class struggle in London where the rich exercise their supremacy over the lower class.  Therefore, through greedy intentions, the film suggests the rich only care for themselves instead of the greater good for all of society.  In addition, the lyrics describe corruption: “at the top of the hole sit the privileged few, making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo, turning beauty to filth and greed…”  “The privileged few” indicate the wealthy citizens who reign over the “hole” or the city.  They “mock the vermin” which describes how the upper classmen persecute the lower class people.  The song blames these powerful individuals for the development of two distinct classes: one of “filth”, the other “greed”.  Ultimately, the music and Barker’s tragic story display how corruption molds London into an immoral wasteland.

Finally, through Todd’s actions, the film illuminates how corruption, filth, and poverty in London combine to create monstrosity.  The unjust treatment of Barker by the judge (as seen in the previous paragraph) provokes Barker to seek vengeance.  He changes his name to Sweeney Todd and sets out to seek revenge for the dismantling of his life.  His main goal is to kill the judge; however, this spirals out of control.  The movie proposes that Todd finds peace in slaughtering numerous men.  In addition, Mrs. Lovett encourages the murders after she discovers she can bake fresh, tasty meat pies from the dead bodies.  She needs fresh meat in order to attract customers and collect revenue.  Since society fails to help her with this task, she resorts to becoming Todd’s accomplice.  Here, the movie demonstrates how poverty leads to desperate measures, in this case cannibalism.  The dirty, gloomy setting also contributes to the madness of the tale.  By adding in the dark buildings and perpetual smoky fog, the film constructs the perfect place for a murder story to occur.  Furthermore, the demonic manner in which Todd repeats these specific lyrics to “There’s No Place like London” shows his hatred for the corrupted city.  He mutters the words as if he is under some sort of trance that he cannot control.  The vehement way in which he sings these lyrics showcase his anger of the past conquering him into a state beyond control.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the song, There’s No Place like London, represent London as an unjust and heinous city.  They suggest that the poverty, filth, and corruption prevalent in society induce monstrosity.  The film paints London as the culprit responsible for murder and disaster; the people merely serve as puppets in response to the situation.  The conditions in which the poor live and the atrocities they endure force them to act immorally.  Thus, London is a society of corruption that can corrupt even the most innocent into killers.

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