Viewer Guide: Oliver! and Brick Lane with Richard Peña

August 10, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


This week’s classic is Oliver!, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens literary classic Oliver Twist, directed by Carol Reed.

Anyone who has ever read Charles Dickens’ classic portrait of poverty-row London might have problems initially imagining the novel as a likely source for a musical. However, we live in a world in which just about anything seems ready to be theatricalized—witness the Metropolitan Opera’s great success with the opera of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel in 2017. Premiering in London’s West End in 1960 with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, Oliver! proved to be a huge sleeper hit, playing over 2600 performances in London before transferring to Broadway in 1963 for another 774 New York performances.

With its dark narrative of an orphan’s plight in late Regency era England, moving between a brutal child labor work house and London’s seamy underbelly of thieving pickpockets, this 1968 film adaptation surprised critics and audiences alike once again. The film managed to remain true to Dickens while incorporating a welcome buoyancy through Bart’s inventive score and Onna White’s sprightly yet curiously appropriate choreography. While seemingly an incongruous assignment for Carol Reed—the acclaimed British director of the classic 1949 thriller The Third Man—Reed’s experience in making film noir, together with the sensitive cinematography of Oswald Morris, created the right atmospheric balance. Most of the film’s principal cast were new to their roles, with the angelic Mark Lester starring as Oliver and Jack Wild providing his perfect foil as The Artful Dodger. Shani Wallis and Oliver Reed co-star as the doomed Nancy and the fearsome Bill Sikes. Only Ron Moody remained from the West End and Broadway stage productions, reprising his show-stopping performance as Dickens’ larcenous mastermind Fagin to “Pick a Pocket or Two” on screen once more.

The heyday of the movie musical was well on the wane by the time of Oliver!’s release in 1968, but director Carol Reed’s lavish and expertly calibrated cinematic adaptation was that rare exception that bucked the trend to become a blockbuster hit. Honored with 11 Academy Award nominations—including actor and supporting actor nods for Ron Moody and Jack Wild—this all-singing, all-dancing Dickens interpretation went on to win Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture, in addition to an honorary statuette for choreographer Onna White. Screenwriter Vernon Harris returned to Dickens original text to flesh out composer Lionel Bart’s somewhat sketchy theatrical adaptation, yet retained much of the stage show’s narrative streamlining, entirely omitting the book’s secondary plotline with Oliver’s half-brother.

Simultaneously representing one of Dickens’ most memorable yet controversial characters, the role of Fagin was almost immediately attacked as anti-Semitic soon after the novel’s serialized publication from 1837 to 1839, with Dickens bluntly referring to Fagin as “the Jew” 257 times in the course of the text. Dickens defended himself against the accusations, claiming Fagin was simply a character type along with everyone else in the story, but eventually removed the majority of references to Fagin’s ethnic and religious identity in later editions of the book. Director David Lean’s 1948 movie adaptation generated further controversy with Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Fagin with a grotesque prosthetic hook nose. Ron Moody’s performance in Oliver! marked the first time a Jewish actor had played the role—only now, all overt references to Fagin’s ethnicity had been removed. It would be 34 years before another movie musical would win the Oscar for Best Picture, with Chicago nabbing that top honor in 2003.


This week’s indie is Brick Lane, a 2007 British drama based on the novel by the same name by Monica Ali, directed by Sarah Gavron.

Set in 2001 in the heart of London’s Bangladeshi neighborhood on Brick Lane, the film focuses on Nazneen, a Bangladesh native who moved to London some twenty years earlier at age 17 to enter into an arranged marriage to an older man. Played by Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nazneen’s reserved demeanor belies a deep yearning to return home and reunite with her sister, whom she hasn’t seen since her moving abroad. Despite a childhood marred by life with an unstable mother, Nazneen’s devoted mail correspondence with her sister still in Bangladesh keeps her memories alive, along with the hope that they will eventually see each other again. Meanwhile, Nazneen copes as best she can with what appears to be a relatively loveless marriage to her husband Chanu, played by Satish Kaushik, as well as contending with the growing pains of her two adolescent daughters coming of age within the culture clash created by their Bangladeshi roots and their British homeland.

After her husband quits his job after being passed over for a promotion, Nazneen becomes the beneficiary of a used sewing machine. She begins to take in finishing work on designer jeans, delivered to her apartment by a friendly—and good looking—delivery man named Karim, played by Christopher Simpson. After living in suffocating repression for so long, Nazneen begins to experience an unexpected emotional thaw. But it isn’t long before world events introduce yet another unexpected complication, with the personal and the global colliding to change Nazneen’s dormant life forever.

Author Monica Ali’s 2003 novel Brick Lane was critically acclaimed and shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. However, as so often happens, the novel also came in for some harsh criticism and controversy for what some detractors felt was a stereotypical depiction of Brick Lane’s Bangladeshi community, denunciations which resurfaced when production of the film adaptation got underway in 2006. There were also objections in some quarters to Nazneen’s husband’s remarks about keeping his Islamic religion within his heart, seemingly rejecting attaching his faith to a political agenda in the face of the post 9/11 anti-Muslim backlash, but in the film’s defense it could be said that it does a powerful job of capturing the many sometimes contradictory and confused reactions that coursed through Muslim communities in the wake of 9/11. Consequently, the film’s producers were refused permission to shoot any sequences on actual Brick Lane locations.

Among the film’s honors were British Independent Film Award nominations for director Sarah Gavron and actress Tannishtha Chatterjee as well as a “most promising newcomer” BAFTA nomination for Gavron. Gavron’s next narrative feature was SUFFRAGETTE in 2015, starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep.


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