Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (2007) is an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s blood-thirsting musical of the same name, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the leading roles. In the film, we see cocktails of violence, betrayal and death with the titular character’s sole ambition being revenge. Fifteen years prior to the events, Sweeney Todd’s real name was Benjamin Barker and he was falsely convicted of a crime by Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman), who lusted after Barker’s wife Lucy. Barker’s return to London under the new alias Sweeney Todd sees him united with former neighbour Mrs. Lovett, a meat pie maker and shop owner.
Revenge, the central theme of Sweeney Todd, is not only apparent in its titular character but in others, too. For example, Toby kills Sweeney in the final scene out of revenge. His motive (in addition to the fact that Sweeney wanted to kill him) is that Sweeney has murdered the maternal figure in Toby's life, Mrs. Lovett. Vengeance is motivated by horrifying truths, but honesty certainly isn’t a prowess in these characters. In a shocking revelation, we learn in the final scene that Sweeney's wife Lucy, whom we believed dead by suicide, was alive all these years, up to the point when Sweeney unknowingly kills her. Mrs. Lovett tells Sweeney earlier, just after the “Poor Thing” song, that Lucy poisened herself. Mrs. Lovett says, “I tried to stop her (Lucy) but she wouldn’t listen to me.” Although she doesn’t strictly state the word “death," that sentence indicates that Lucy has died. In this false implication, Mrs. Lovett misleads Sweeney all along and pushes him toward his eventual path of bloody revenge as a notorious serial killer.
Mrs. Lovett later claims that her motive for lying about Lucy's death is that she loves Sweeney. She’s already lost her husband, Albert, prior to the film’s events, and she's alone with her failing business. She is desperate. A question that arises here, though, is how far does Mrs. Lovett really go in her time of lying to Sweeney Todd? For example, refer back to when she tells him in “Poor Thing” about how Turpin lusted after Lucy and eventually raped her in public. What if she was lying about that moment, too? We know that Turpin was after Sweeney’s wife and that he was wrongly sentenced, but, due to our unreliable narrator, the possibility of Mrs Lovett's lying about Lucy’s rape may be strong. After all, nobody mentions it in the film except her, and there is no actual proof that it even happened.
Lucy is revealed to be the beggar woman who is seen frequently during the film, and the reason for her drastic downfall is assumed to be Turpin’s rape. However, the inability to handle Barker’s absence and her role as a single parent could equally have caused this devastation, even without the sensational story of the public rape and the suicide. Maybe Lucy really did attempt suicide, and the attempt itself may have left her to become an unfit mother. And maybe Turpin did stalk her after Barker’s conviction, but we are unsure what exactly took place. Since it is a musical (a form which can often blend into the fantasy genre in some ways), the film reveals crucial plot points and character motives through vocal performance. So even Lovett's singing the story of Lucy’s rape in “Poor Thing” may to some extent take on the quality of a fantasy sequence that relies on audience imagination rather than an accurate flashback of previous events. We can only assume the Mrs. Lovett is lying when it suits her, motivated by lust for Sweeney, just as Turpin's wrongs were driven by lust for Lucy.
Although Sweeney is the film's serial killer, he is not the antagonist. Instead, he is the fallen hero. So, who is the real villain? It could be Judge Turpin who started it all, or it could be Mrs Lovett, who emotionally manipulates Sweeney. We can compare Lovett to Turpin in the sense that both do wrong to get what they lust after and have no qualms about acquiring their goals by wrong means. Unbeknownst to Sweeney at the beginning, Lucy is alive, and he has a chance to rebuild a married life, but the manipulative Mrs. Lovett would continuously whisper in his ear. Sweeney chooses revenge instead of regaining what he has lost. Mrs. Lovett encourages Sweeney's vengeful obsession, so that Sweeney will forget the possibility of Lucy being alive and (she hopes) progressively begin a life with Mrs. Lovett.
All these observations lead us to wonder if Lovett is the real villain, more so than Judge Turpin. Lucy, as the beggar woman, refers to Lovett as “the devil’s wife”, “a witch” and simply “her,” thereby labelling her as a mischievous, manipulative woman. Mrs Lovett's plan backfires on her in the end, and she gets her comeuppance as Todd lunges her into the bake oven and lets her burn to death. The idea of further lies and deceit than the immediately apparent ones Mrs. Lovett tells (such as the potential fabrication of Lucy's public rape) would make this film even more interesting. Exploring the depths of Mrs. Lovett's manipulation enhances our understanding that the biggest villains are those who most emotionally manipulate, rather than those who physically or explicitly attack, the main character.