Oliver Twist; Pride and Prejudice

 Oliver Twist Oliver Twist is probably the most widely known of Charles Dickens' novels. One of his earliest, it was published in serial form in 1837, the year Quee Victoria came to the throne. The 1830s saw reform of laws concerning the poor and their support and the introduction of parish workhouses for orphans. While reform might have been the buzz-word, the reality of life for the poor was still harsh. Dickens, a parliamentary journalist, took social reform causes to heart and made them the core of so many of his novels. In the climate of current awareness of the abuse of children and, in so many countries, their exploitation, the story of Oliver Twist is still relevant. For older filmgoers, there are the powerful memories of David Lean's 1948 classic with Alec Guinness' memorable portrait of Fagin. For both older and younger audiences, there are the memories of the film and stage versions of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver with so many of its hummable tunes and their lyrics commenting on Dickens' characters: Pick a Pocket or two, I'd do anything, Consider Yourself. These images influence our appreciation of any new version. Playwright Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, Oscar for The Pianist) has streamlined the plot (omitting the story of Oliver's mother and Dickens' delight in coincidences). Director is Roman Polanski who has stated that he wants this to be a children's film, a child's view of Fagin and his gang, a touch of fantasy that is larger than life. With marvellous sets, costumes and Rachel Portman's Dickensian score, he has created a nineteenth century London that feels authentic. Polanski is no stranger to English literature, aside from such classics as Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown, he has directed Macbeth and Thomas Hardy's Tess for the screen. Two problems face a director of the Oliver Twist story. The first is how to present Oliver himself. John Howard Davies for Lean and Mark Lester for Oliver were both genteel little lads with a woebegone look and manner. The danger is that Oliver becomes too sweet and, even, insipid. Here, Barney Clark's Oliver is much stronger. We are given quite a few sequences in the workhouse and the funeral parlour where his actions show some inner fire. He is always well-mannered and appreciative with an innate goodness. But he is strong. The other problem is how to present Fagin, especially his Jewish identity and manner. Dickens himself is said to have toned down his portrait after receiving feedback that it could be construed as anti-Semitic. The same was said, and continues to be said, of Alec Guinness' performance. While Ben Kingsley as Fagin continues the tradition, Harwood and Polanski (both Jewish) have emphasised his kindly behaviour towards Oliver (which is how Oliver sees him) as well as his ruthlessness in setting up Oliver to be killed by Bill Sykes. Jamie Forman is less frightening than Robert Newton or Oliver Reed but his Bill Sykes is no less menacing. Leanne Rowe is younger than the usual Nancy and a reminder of how young girls were trapped in prostitution at that time. A fine group of British character actors fill out the supporting roles, chosen not for their film star appearance. Rather, the contrary, many of them look quite eccentric, even grotesque which Dickens would have liked. While the film has a PG rating and many of us saw Lean's film when we were young, the subject matter and some of the treatment as well as the violence at the end might make parents wary about whether younger children might be frightened by it. It is meant to be a compliment to Polanski's talent in bringing Dickens to life to say that they might well be frightened. Pride and Prejudice This most popular of Jane Austin's novels is best-known for its many television versions, especially that of 1995 with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. Last year, the plot was adapted (but followed the novel closely) for the very entertaining Bollywood-style extravaganza, Bride and Prejudice. Strange as it may seem, this present film is only the second version for the big screen. It is sixty five years since Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier were Miss Bennett and Mr Darcy. Each version needs a good reason for superseding its predecessor. The question is, what does this 2005 version have to offer? First of all, audiences will find it entertaining. Its recreation of the period, the era of war with Napoleon, is different. Instead of lavish Regency costumes and décor, director Joe Wright has opted for an earthier style. It is not glamorous. Rather, it reflects the social standing and family incomes (and lack of them) of families who were not considered part of 'society'. The Bennett family is not necessarily uncomfortable. But, with five daughters who need husbands to support them (according to the law, daughters could not inherit so estates went to male cousins like Mr Collins), matchmaking was a full-time occupation. The director also opted for filming on location rather than in studios. A wide selection of homes throughout Britain were chosen. Ordinary homes with the touch of the farm served for the Bennett's. Grandly elegant houses were used for Mr Darcy's home and that of Lady Catherine de Burgh. The buildings and interiors are impressive but the film also capitalises on both gentle and rugged locations in Derbyshire. One of the key features of this version is that the actors are much the same age as the characters in the novel. Elizabeth Bennett is about twenty and Mr Darcy in his late 20s. Greer Garson, for instance, was at least twelve years older for the 1941 film and Laurence Oliver was in his early 30s. Colin Firth was, in fact, 35 when he played the part. This time Keira Knightly is almost twenty and Matthew McFadyen twenty eight. This means that Elizabeth is a mixture of mischievous girlishness and intelligent shrewdness. Keira Knightly (who has risen quickly to stardom from Bend it Like Beckham to the Pirates of the Caribbean series) is pretty and pert. While she discovers she has been harshly prejudiced against Mr Darcy, it is the potential for maturity rather than maturity itself that the actress conveys. Matthew McFadyen is a very good Darcy. He alienates Elizabeth as well as the audience with his pride and his prejudices but, as he better understands himself and his feelings, we can understand how Elizabeth is attracted to him. Some of the intense interchanges between the two are quite powerful. Mrs Bennett and her nerves have always been scene-stealers and Brenda Blethyn seems an obvious and good choice to play her. Surprisingly, Donald Sutherland plays the put-upon Mr Bennett. He is both genial and cowardly and the performance reminds us that he is to blame for not intervening in his daughters' upbringing and his wife's obsessive planning. He is not just simply the martyr to Mrs Bennett's hen-pecking. Most of the rest of the cast have cameos. Rosamund Pike is a mopey Jane, Jena Malone a giggly and flirtatious Lydia. A standout is Tom Hollander as Mr Collins in his wilfully obtuse proposing to Elizabeth as well as his obsequious attitudes to Lady Catherine de Burgh. She is played with grand hauteur by Judi Dench. A more down-to-earth and realistic interpretation of Jane Austin's world.LONDON - 13 October 2005 - 1,240 words

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