Set against the backdrop of sordid 19th century London, Sweeney Todd is the story of Benjamin Barker, a man who years ago was convicted for a crime he didn't commit by a powerful, corrupt judge who lusted after Barker's wife Lucy. At the opening of the film, Barker—under the alias of "Sweeney Todd"—has just arrived in London after escaping from the penal colony where he's been held prisoner for fifteen years. He returns to the site of his home and barbershop to find it deserted. Mrs. Lovett—a widow and proprietor of a pie emporium below Sweeney's old shop—tells him that Judge Turpin raped Lucy, who then poisoned herself, and that the Judge now has custody of Sweeney's daughter, Johanna. Sweeney's desire for revenge consumes him, resulting in an arrangement by which he slits the throats of his barbershop customers, then drops the bodies down a chute to Mrs. Lovett's bakehouse, where she makes them into pies to sell. Finally, in an attempt to kill the Judge and rescue Johanna, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett destroy themselves and those close to them.
Color used in Sweeney Todd is very limited; at first glance, the film appears to be almost completely black-and-white, with the exception of a few high-saturation sequences, and copious amounts of scarlet blood. Though much of the film is monochromatic, color is always present, and plays a large part in the visual story. The three main hues used are red, yellow-orange, and cyan-blue.
The opening scene is dark (it is nighttime), very desaturated, and completely cold cyan-blue. Characters look almost dead, with no warmth or natural skin-tones visible, and the atmosphere created is gothic and brooding. As Sweeney steps off the boat he has arrived on, and begins to think about his life before his arrest, he steps into the golden glow of a streetlamp. This introduces an association between the past and the color yellow which carries through the whole film. As Sweeney sings about his wife, a flashback begins, and there is a dramatic change in color.
Though there is still strong affinity of color, the flashback is warm and saturated. The predominant color is orange-yellow, present in Lucy's hair, Barker's cravat, and the general hue of the image. The song progresses, the flashback-Barker is arrested, and a new character is introduced: Judge Turpin.
Judge Turpin's jacket is the first solid red object in the film, and the color red becomes tied to him, and by extension, barbarity, corruption, and violence. The connections between the Judge and red, and Lucy and yellow are developed further as Mrs. Lovett continues the story of what happened after Barker's arrest.
The Judge lures Lucy to his house, claiming to regret what happened. when she goes to his house, however, there is a masquerade ball in progress. Now dark, saturated red dominates. The last shot of Lucy before the judge descends upon her, shows her completely orange-yellow against a background of dark red and black.
The film leaves behind the vivid colors and emotions of the past, and returns to the "present" of the story, with its dead-looking desaturated monochrome. At times it is less cyan-blue and more faded brownish gray, as if the red and yellow of the flashbacks have bled into the real world as Sweeney's desire for revenge takes hold.
|"At last, my arm is complete again."|
The next variation in color comes when Mrs. Lovett takes Sweeney to a market where a rival barber—a flamboyant Italian named Pirelli—is giving a demonstration. Pirelli's costume is ostentatious, a saturated blue suit with a magenta-purple and gold cape. The flashy, peacock-like colors of Pirelli's clothing contrast starkly with Sweeney's shabby, understated, black-and-white wardrobe, and with the rest of the dreary palette, seeming artificial and stagy. It is later revealed that Pirelli is, in fact, a fraud. And what's more, he knows Sweeney Todd's true identity.
When Pirelli blackmails Sweeney, Sweeney kills him, getting blood on his white sleeve in the process. This has a literal function in the story (alerting Mrs. Lovett to the fact that a murder has just taken place), and a more figurative, subconscious function: for the first time, red enters Sweeney's wardrobe, bringing with it the qualities associated with the Judge (e.g. violence, amorality), as Sweeney begins his descent from innocent victim to serial killer. This motif of a bloodstained sleeve returns at the climax of the film, when one sleeve is completely soaked in blood, with all white on one side overtaken by red.
|Sweeney with blood-soaked sleeve, from near the film's climax|
In a sub-plot, Anthony, a sailor who helped Sweeney reach London, sees and falls in love with Johanna. The dark red interior of the Judge's house returns, reenforcing the connection between red and bad. Johanna, like her mother, is associated with orange-yellow. A reprise of a song entitled "Johanna," is lit with amber-colored streetlights and lamplight, and lyrics include, "buried sweetly in your yellow hair," and "are you beautiful and pale, with yellow hair, like her?" However, having lived her whole life captive of the depraved Judge, Johanna is scarred, and her color is consequently less warm and vibrant than her mother's—a bright (pale), desaturated cream-color.
|Johanna prepares to escape with Anthony.|
Meanwhile, back on Fleet Street, the pie business is booming with the steady supply of fresh meat from Sweeney's barbershop, and Mrs. Lovett holds a grand reopening of her shop. The presence of red is stronger than before; there are large red lanterns hung about, and Mrs. Lovett's hair has a strong maroon tinge, as though the blood has (metaphorically) stained her as well.
After the grand reopening, Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett, and Toby (Pirelli's former apprentice, now Mrs. Lovett's assistant) go on a picnic. Though there is blue sky and green grass, it is still very desaturated, and the three sit in a pool of gray-blue shade.
Mrs. Lovett sings a song in which she tells Sweeney about her dream life with him by the sea. A fantasy sequence accompanies the song, showing Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney (and sometimes Toby) at the beach, having dinner, siting on the porch of a cottage, and doing other things Mrs. Lovett dreams of. The colors are very bright and saturated, with vivid cyan and peachy red-pink, and white.
The one deviance from this cyan-red-white color scheme is when Mrs. Lovett sings "a seaside wedding could be devised." In her fantasy wedding with Sweeney, yellow light pours through the stained-glass windows of a church.
However, it is not the warm, soft, orange-yellow glow associated with Lucy, but a startlingly saturated yet dark shade of yellow, making Mrs. Lovett look sickly and unwholesome. This perversion of the color tied to Lucy and Sweeney's love creates the sense of wrongness about Mrs. Lovett's fantasy marriage. Love and happiness are impossible for Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, and Mrs. Lovett cannot replace Lucy.
The finale of the film returns to the desaturated near-monochrome of reality, with dark cyan moonlight in the barbershop, orange-yellow firelight from Mrs. Lovett's pie oven, and the saturated red of blood.
The stylized use of color in Sweeney Todd is a key element of Tim Burton's storytelling. Strong affinity of color evokes a moody, antique atmosphere; saturation of color makes shots easily identifiable as present reality or a flashback or fantasy; and although the audience may not be consciously aware of the more subtle associations between color and character, they are present and affect the emotional content of every shot.