Oliver!

It seems as though musicals and people’s attitudes towards them have been discussed thoroughly recently. Many of my friends and fellow writers have been expressing their opinions about the genre and discussing their frustrations about people’s ignorance to such a varied and exciting genre. A writer I very much admire talked about the rich amount of subjects that musicals can cover and how scandalous some subjects really are. You can read this article here. I struggle, personally, to view musicals as a genre. I intend to dedicate an entire post to this subject at a later date so I won’t go into vast details right now. However, it is true that musicals are capable of being as controversial as any other area of film; discussing some shocking taboos and sensitive issues. Musicals framed and defined my childhood. From Rodgers and Hammerstein classics such as The Sound of Music and The King & I to the creepy and enchanting works of Walt Disney Studios such as Mary Poppins to the modern adaptation of a bible story in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, to the racy adolescent world of Grease, musicals are perhaps responsible for my lasting obsession and romance with cinema. There is one musical however that captures everything that I love about the “genre”, if we insist on labelling them as such.

Carol Reed directed Oliver! in 1968 and captured the bleak and terrifying world of pickpocket gangs, orphanages and class division in the late 19th century. Based on the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist, the film tells the story of an orphan’s longing to be loved and accepted into a family. Oliver begins at an orphanage but eventually finds himself mixed up in the world of petty crime and poverty in this grim and filthy depiction of London. The charismatic but equally cruel worlds of Nancy, Bill Sykes, Fagin and The Artful Dodger offer Oliver sanctuary for some time before transforming into his prison. Oliver! is everything you wouldn’t expect from a musical. Even underneath the terror and suspense that lingers in every scene, there is no romance to be found anywhere. I watched Oliver! repeatedly as a child; every time as amused, terrified, moved and enthralled as the last. The story would provoke tears of joy and sorrow and never did I become desensitised to the villainous Bill Sykes, played flawlessly by Oliver Reed.

Reed brings a threatening atmosphere to the character that would continue to petrify me on each of my returns to the film. Ron Moody was the highlight of the film for me and remains the greatest element of the picture. His ability to combine comedy and horror emphasised his unhinged and almost ‘rat-like’ character. Shani Wallis is enthralling as Nancy. The real victim of this tale, she is made to be bold, brave and beaten by Wallis’ stunning performance. Mark Lester and Jack Wild work in perfect unison as the young boys trapped in this underworld of thieves and murderers. Reed’s direction is priceless. You only have to watch the choreographed seven minutes of Consider Yourself to understand how ambitious Reed was to deliver a strong and breath-taking adaptation of Dickens’ story. Oliver! balances naive fantasy and a harsh reality that draws me in time and time again. It is a nostalgic experience to watch Oliver! now but it remains as impressive and marvellous as my first childhood viewings.

Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry. 

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