Cutthroat

In which we go all grand guignol


Before going off on holiday, we popped down to York to see Sweeney Todd, the new Tim Burton version of the Sondheim musical. It contains, as you might expect from a Tim Burton film, a lovely, dark, damp and grimy version of 19th-century London, albeit one with a rather anachronistic Tower Bridge opening near the start.*

I’m not normally a fan of musicals, but I rather liked this one, despite feeling slightly ill by the end at the amount of blood spurting around in best grand guignol style.** I loved Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as a barber-showman with prominant genitalia, and I even guessed the ending twist (although not the direction it would be coming from). He’s a very good mechanic, too, Sweeney Todd, knocking up a mechanical barber’s chair overnight; I never did work out where he got all his pinions from. And as Mrs Lovett explained how all the blood and waste was poured down into the sewer, it occurred to me that back then nobody would have noticed anyway. Back then the sewer was the River Fleet, which daily ran red with blood and offal from Smithfield Market upstream..

Above all, though, the film reminded me of one of my favourite books, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. On a superficial level: the almost constantly dark and smoky London of the film reminded me of Lanark‘s fictional and Hadean city of Unthank, with its constantly dark skies. Moreover, though, it was the film’s sense of alienation, between rich and poor, between ruler and oppressed, which made me think of the book.*** Todd’s alienation and disconnection from the London population, caused by his unjust transportation to Australia, lead directly to his sociopathy and psychopathy. It echoes the defining line that isn’t actually in Lanark**** but which sums up much the themes of that novel: “Man is the pie that bakes and eats itself, and the recipe is separation.”

* it wasn’t built until about 90 years after Todd was supposedly around, in most of the versions of the story which give him a date.

** “It looked more like paint,” said Mystery Filmgoer afterwards, laughing. “It was too brightly coloured, more like the blood you get from superficial cuts – arterial blood is darker.”

*** Some of the lyrics also echo George Orwell’s famous quote about “a boot stamping on a human face forever”.

**** The line never appears whole and complete as I’ve quoted it here, but fragments of it are repeated many times through the book.

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