The Mindful Bard – Sweeney Todd

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

DVD: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Released: 2007

Directed by Tim Burton

?Evil is neither suffering nor sin; it is both at the same time, it is something common to them both. For they are linked together; sin makes us suffer and suffering makes us evil, and this indissoluble complex of suffering and sin is the evil in which we are submerged against our will, and to our horror.?

Simone Weil in Gateway to God

On the busy thoroughfare of the pursuit of happiness we sometimes run people over. The more successful our search for happiness, the easier it is to forget that. On the other hand, the less successful our search, the more likely we are to take perverse pleasure in the pain of others.

The story of Sweeney Todd almost deserves to called an urban legend, partly because so many think it true, partly because it is so cleverly macabre, and partly because it is a significant window into the conscience of popular culture.

I say it is almost an urban legend because, unlike most urban legends, which by definition happened to someone you knew or someone someone you knew knew, this story is invariably set in a very specific time and place.

We must never forget Marx’s tour of London factories and the dismissive answer he got in response to his criticisms of them. As elaborate as this screen fantasy may be, the filth and squalor, the prevalence of beggars, the consumption of copious quantities of alcohol by children, the undeserved consignment of vulnerable persons to poor houses, insane asylums, and prisons where all forms of abuse continued without outside hindrance?these were all glaringly real.

Yes, we are free to choose or shun evil, and thus we are under any and all circumstances responsible for the evil acts we commit. And yet, considering the depth and width and breadth of the pain involved in, say, being falsely accused of a crime and sent to a penal colony by a rich man who wants to boink your wife, is not an evil course of action a nearly inevitable response? In light of this, should a society cry foul when the oppression it generates results in the creation of monsters?

And yet . . . The thing about evil is that It’s so darned unruly. It needs a Lucy Lovett to manage it and make it useful, to bring it into a symbiotic relationship with humanity, if you will.

The other thing about evil is that It’s generative; evil must either be handed on or transformed into suffering and loss. And there’s the rub.

I have a weakness for Tim Burton so I came to this movie fully expecting it to be this right. The aptly chosen cast, the brilliant performances, the evocative cinematography, the justice done to Sondheim’s music, these were all up to Burton’s standard yet still surprising and enchanting in themselves.

Sweeney Todd lives up to seven of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for movies well worth watching: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it confronts injustice; 3) it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; 4) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 5) it is about loss of the true self; 6) it stimulates my mind; and 7) it poses and admirably responds to questions which have a direct bearing on my view of existence.

The Bard could use some help scouting out new material. If you discover any books, compact disks, or movies which came out in the last twelve months and which you think fit the Bard’s criteria, please drop a line to For a list of criteria, go here. If I agree with your recommendation, I’ll thank you online.