03 February 2014

Oliver! (starring Mark Lester)

‘Oliver’ is the classic musical production based on Charles Dickens’ book ‘Oliver Twist’. The plot is well-known, as are many of the songs - such as ‘Food, Glorious Food’ or the catchy ‘Oom-pah-pah’. First produced in film format in 1968, this is a lengthy DVD, over two-and-a-half hours in length. It follows the typical style of musical films in that the plot is interrupted regularly by well-choreographed and beautifully sung pieces, which (at least in the case of this one) lighten the mood.

I had only the vaguest memories of this film, but we had it on DVD; it’s rated U so I rather naively assumed it would be a good one for some young friends (aged 3 up to 11) to watch. Thankfully they didn’t opt for it, and instead I saw it - or most of it - in the company of two teenage friends who already knew the story. One of them had read the Dickens book.

The story, set in the mid 19th century, starts in the workhouse. Oliver, who has lived there all his life, draws the short straw and makes the infamous request for more gruel. He is sold to a local undertaker, and escapes, only to find himself part of a gang of juvenile pickpockets. It takes him a while to work out what’s going on, by which time he is ensnared by the greedy Fagin, and the evil Bill Sykes. Bill’s wife Nancy, however, develops quite a soft spot for Oliver who is quite tender-hearted despite his upbringing.

It’s very well done. The young Mark Lester makes a very believable Oliver with an amazing singing voice, and Jack Wild was perfectly cast as the Artful Dodger, Oliver’s new friend and lead amongst the young pickpockets. The songs go on, perhaps, a bit too long for today’s youngsters, and some of the general shots of scenes in London were rather slow; an editor today would, I’m sure, reduce the length by at least half an hour with no loss of plot or dialogue. But those are minor quibbles; it’s a classic film, and this kind of thing is to be expected.

What surprised me more was the level of violence in the film, something which, I feel, should have lifted the rating to at least PG, preferably 12. There are two very unpleasant deaths at the end; one is off-stage, but it’s still clear what went on, and the other, while less gruesome than that in the book, could still give nightmares to a sensitive child. Earlier in the film there is a great deal of violence - or threatened violence - to the boys, in ways that would today be considered seriously abusive.

While there is no overt bad language, nudity or intimacy, there are some clear innuendoes, and quite a bit of drinking - not inappropriate for the characters and era concerned, but equally not something I would want a young child to see. I will no longer offer it to my younger friends as a possibility!

Still, for teens and adults, it’s worth seeing at least once, if only to learn where the songs come from, and to appreciate the grandeur and complexity of such a major production in the late 1960s.

Review copyright Sue's DVD Reviews

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