First of all, I’d like to apologize for it taking me so long to continue the Oliver series. There are a variety of reasons for my negligence, but the main one is that I was planning a wedding and it just felt too depressing to watch various renditions of a poor, thief boy experiencing traumatic life circumstances. But here I am- married, generally settled and ready for another dreary British-based film.
I actually watched this one in March or April, but thanks to thorough note-taking, it’s time to analyze Oliver!. I have to admit, I was excited about this one due to its musical allure, so there may have been slight bias going into it. Nonetheless, I will try to review it honestly and fairly.
*Warning: spoilers ahead. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you know the basic story. If you don’t but don’t care, that’s fine too.*
> Delightfully different from 1933 Oliver
I’m glad to report that the producers of Oliver! actually wrote in meaningful lines (and songs!) for its main character (hopefully by now you know that’s Oliver Twist) which is already a stark improvement to 1933 Oliver. In contrast to Dickie Moore in 1933 Oliver, Mark Lester not only speaks full sentences, but he sings, dances and EVEN ACTS! That, my friends, is talent. Also, he’s still adorable, which goes to show you that it is possible to cast cute children who also obtain basic skills.
Lester does a fantastic job at interpreting Oliver’s innocence while still maintaining his wit, wisdom and emotion. For example, when Noah makes a ruthless comment about Oliver’s mother, the producers (accurately) have Oliver attack him in a rage. Consistent with the novel, Oliver is passionate, and he isn’t oblivious to others wronging or abusing him. (Also, brownie points to Oliver! for actually including Noah Claypole in this film.)
On the other hand, fairly soon after this broom-on-Noah action, Oliver’s naivety and overwhelming desire to belong prompts him to join a band of juvenile thieves which overall leads to misfortune and general stress. Yet despite being surrounded by selfish people throughout his whole, young existence, he intentionally treats others with kindness and respect. His innate gentlemanly manner supersedes his crude environment. I suppose this is my overall point- I love this Oliver, because he is accurately complex.
A few other perfectly portrayed characters were the Artful Dodger, Fagin, Bill Sikes and Nancy. Dodger was just how he was described in the book: like a little man with a lost childhood. He isn’t entirely a “bad” kid- he’s living how he’s always known and been taught. “Consider yourself at home,” he tells Oliver, giving a glimpse into his potentially kind heart. He is faithful to those he cares about (except the part where he lets Oliver get caught for something he didn’t do… but we all have our moments), including his ridiculous boss, Fagin.
The producers of Oliver! had Fagin’s entire look and vibe down in parallel to the book, from finger-less gloves to his sly, deceitfully “loving” behavior. His apparent kindness is dirtied by greed. In brief moments, he seems to have soft spots for his little apprentice pick-pockets, but in reality, his affection is for himself alone. One grievance I have with Fagin in this film is the lack of full exposure to his true heart. In the novel, Fagin is the one who essentially manipulates Sikes into murdering Nancy (he really is the mastermind behind their organization), but the film makes him seem helpless and “not bad enough to do that.”
Bill Sikes is successfully terrifying. There isn’t much more to say about him except that he’s entirely unhinged, fearfully too calm and completely unpredictable. Way to give me nightmares, Oliver! producers. Nancy‘s loose “night life” character is well portrayed in this film, as well as her slow discovery of herself. She is the “mother” figure the urchin boys never had, and while she loves deeply, she slowly begins to care more about what’s right than about her abusive love interest.
My main character disappointment: why did they not include Monks or Rose Maylie? Maybe I’m just entirely “the book was better” regarding the inclusion of these characters.
> Minus the singing and dancing, mostly true
Most of the important scenes and main plot lines were there, and any crucial scenes that were missing were less annoying- probably because the producers of this film still captured the overall theme well (more on this later).
Unlike 1933 Oliver, they actually included his odd servanthood to a random undertaker (which is where the whole Noah episode took place) and the neglect that Oliver experienced there. It also includes his trip to London which impacts his character development (unlike 1933 Oliver’s odd gymnastic sequence… which is apparently how people in the 30’s picture Oliver’s long journey). While butchers and street vendors never dance in the novel, the producers do a fantastic job sticking to the novel’s plot otherwise. In fact, the songs are well picked and mostly enhance the overall story line.
One main plot line that was cut out was Rose Maylie’s family and their influence on Oliver’s experience with the kind side of humanity. I realize that subplot would make this film entirely too long (and would require a whole extra array of musical numbers), but the juxtaposition between Rose and Nancy is one of my favorite parts in the book (how their upbringing and background influenced who they were throughout their lives, but their common kindness was always a choice). However, I would argue that the murder scene and ending in general is impacted by this plot hole… though I’ll refrain from giving you a ten page exposition on why and just admit that movies always have to be shorter :(.
> Picture Oliver dancing in London, but it’s really me
Other than asking my friend Tessa (who was watching with me) if I could skip the obnoxiously long Overture, the music was a dream. Instead of distracting from the story line, which unfortunately some musicals can do, the songs enhanced it.
I found that the musical numbers, especially Oliver’s song “Where is Love,” helped the audience to connect with Oliver’s internal struggles and emotional history. This interpretation of Oliver’s desire for answers about who his mother is and what happened to her helps us see into a deeper side of Oliver- one that the people he encounters probably will not know otherwise.
The cinematography was lovely as well. The shots of London’s bustling streets were fun and enchanting, helping to give an insider view of British culture during this period. The busy street vibes were also brilliantly represented in the dance numbers.
The producers did a good job of visually contrasting the rougher areas of London from the more sophisticated part of London. Even the dance numbers match the settings.
Overall, I give this part an A+ and a dance from me.
> As creative as Fagin is slimey
How do you share a story that is dreary without depressing everyone? Add singing and dancing. To be fair, Dickens has a knack for humor already. Despite the sad nature of the plot, he generously includes sharp wit and dry jabs at the society. However, I do believe the producers did a great job of taking heavy subject matter and helping audiences to swallow it … and to ask, “Please sir, can I have some more?”
While staying true to Dickens’ effort to divulge the shameful exploitation of young children in 1800’s England, this musical adaption helped audiences emotionally connect without dying inside. They kept it watchable, but still touched on pressing issues of the era.
I’m sure there are those who find the film “too happy,” veering from the book’s intensity, but I found it refreshing. There are plenty of “hard doses of reality” throughout the film, so I would say that the mood is generally true to the book.
To quote my friend Tessa (see above) during the movie: “The thing about this movie is that you could remove all of the songs and the story would still make sense.”
> Bravo. Five stars. Hip hip hooray.
I touched on much of this above, but to summarize: overall, the themes are true to the book.
Oliver’s desire for belonging and meaning.
Nancy’s hope for goodness and redemption.
Fagin’s self-consuming greed.
Bill’s obsession with power and control.
Mr. Brownlow’s compassion and understanding.
1837 England’s social injustices and hypocrisies.
This film was a breath of fresh air (especially in comparison to the 1933 Oliver Twist). Definitely comparable to the book in plot points and emotional experience, but also unique in its approach. A+!
Thanks for bearing with me all these months before I published this post. Now onto the next movie series to analyze.
What should I watch next?
What book-based film collections would you like to see compared and critiqued? I would love to hear your input, so feel free to comment below!