Oliver Twist (1999)

Reviewer: Melinda Lav.


With moonlight reflecting across the surface of the Thames, two figures in a boat -- one of an old man, and one of a tender, yet frightened girl -- row slowly along. Attached with a rope, dragging next to the boat is floating the body of a deceased man. Another boat -- with a solitary, haggard occupant -- slows several yards away and the men of the two boats have an unfriendly exchange where they break partnership. Both men drag the river for a living, making things from what they find, and robbing the bodies of dead, unfortunate persons.


The man in the boat with the young woman, Gaffer Hexum, accuses the other boatman, Rogue Riderhood, of stealing from a live sailor. Apparently Hexum sees crime in stealing from the living, while money from the dead belongs to no one. Thus begins the epic tale of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. From this monumental night on the river, much comes to pass in result. Each character -- including that of the dead man -- plays a key role in the following 340 minutes of screenplay. A major theme explored in the story is the topic brought up in the opening scene: Is it wrong to take from the living, while it is not wrong to take from the dead? Many characters are involved in this tale -- 10 main and numerous minor characters -- all from vast different stations in life. Yet, throughout the movie's many plots, each comes together in a unique way. There is Miss Bella Wilfer (Anna Friel), a girl from a poor family of originally no distinction in life. As a young child she was put into the late John Harmon Senior's will. Upon his death, his son, also named John, will inherit the majority of his large fortune upon the condition that he marries Bella.


The son John knows nothing of Bella, nor she of him, until the father's death. However, on Harmon's trip back home he is reportedly found dead in the Thames, discovered by Hexum. Bella loses her prospect of a fortune and is left an ironic widower, mourning for a husband she had never met, loved, or even had. In another walk of life is a schoolmaster by the name of Bradley Headstone (David Morrissey). He appears to be a very respectable person, and walks his life in that manner. He does, until he meets Hexum's beautiful and compassionate daughter, Lizzie (Keeley Hawes), but cannot have her. From that stems a deep, dark passion, greed, and jealousy that controls and consumes Headstone's being. Throughout the course of the movie a mysterious "mutual friend" appears in the lives of several main characters, previously unattached from each other.


Through most of the plot he appears to those around him as allusive, secretive, dishonorable, and sly, yet behind his front -- as later is proven to be true -- his character is that of gold, and his honor more valuable than any sum of money can ever prove to shatter. All characters are being tested in various ways, though many do not realize it, and those who stand firm survive and are rewarded, and those who don't face the consequences, which are often very cruel. This 1998 three-video BBC series was originally showed on PBS. I have watched the movie six or seven times (and coming from a person who rarely ever watches a movie more than once, that is saying a lot!) and my Dad and I proclaim it one of our favorite -- if not the favorite -- movies we have ever seen. Not only is the plot wonderfully written and portrayed, but also each character polishes the story line magnificently. Nearly all of the people who I know who have seen this movie claim that each character is perfectly cast. From the bored and aimless Eugene Wrayburn (Paul McGann), to the passionate, vehement Bradley Headstone, each actor is perfect for their part, and acts their parts incredibly well. The only complaint I have in regards to the casting is how Eugene and Alfred Lammle look too much alike to new viewers. They play quite opposite parts, yet they look and dress very much alike, which may create some unneeded confusion among new viewers.


The cinematography cannot go unmentioned. The camera angles, moods, and scenery are breathtaking and unique, and add a lot of quality and charm to this production. There are only a few minor problems that keep this film from being flawless. One is the aforementioned look-alike actors. Secondly, the plot is hard to follow at times, especially since the characters -- partially become of their period accents -- don't articulate well enough frequently. There is so much for the viewer to take in, with the multiple plots and important details, that one cannot get the entire essence from watching the film one time. Upon a second or third watch (or seventh or eighth, in my case) the viewer will become delighted at all the nuances undiscovered before, and the intrigue and charm of the movie will imbed itself more firmly in their mind. As this film is complex, I would not recommend it for anyone under the age of 12. Younger children may enjoy some of the scenes and costumes (which are beautiful!), yet will most likely not be able to follow the trail of the movie. There is one questionable scene where Mr. Headstone takes a bath in the river (backside nudity) and few scenes of violence, yet they are done in good taste. The wonderful thread throughout the movie that is uplifting and encouraging to watch is that of evil will be punished, and honor and truth will find their reward in the end. This is truly a masterpiece that will stay with you long after the film has ended.


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