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Olivia Twist

D: Arno Hazebroek / 74m

Cast: Ellie Mahyoub, James Francis, Martin Alcock, Junior Daws, Angela Fleming, Teague Davis, Kimberley Windsor, Matthew Mellalieu, Darren Smallridge, Chris Salisbury, Rachel Grainger, Armani Katija

A young, heavily pregnant woman collapses outside her house. She later dies in childbirth, but her child, a daughter, survives. The daughter is adopted by the Twists, and is raised by them in Stoke-on-Trent. The marriage is cut short by Mrs Twist’s death and Olivia is left in the care of her father, Barry (Smallridge), but their relationship has become a distant one. At school it’s little better, though she does have a close friend, Dick (Davis) and they support each other against a group of bullies. When Olivia punches one of them for saying nasty things about her mother, she is meant to see the headmistress, Miss Corney (Windsor), but she ducks out of school and heads home instead. There, an unexpected discovery makes her leave home for good.

She wanders aimlessly and spends the night in a barn. The next day she comes across a group of youths who are mugging an old man (Salisbury). The police arrive and Olivia runs off; when the coast is clear she encounters a young man who introduces himself as Jack Dawkins (Francis). He takes her under his wing and tells her there’s a place she can go where she’ll be looked after, run by a man called Fagin (Alcock) who looks after waifs and strays. At Fagin’s it soon becomes clear that the other teenagers there are part of a gang of pickpockets and thieves, and that Fagin runs things. In return for looking after her, Olivia is expected to become a part of the gang but she’s resistant to the idea. When a criminal acquaintance of Fagin’s, Bill Sykes (Daws), is looking for a small child to help rob a house, Olivia’s slight frame makes her the ideal candidate. But when she gets inside the house, she’s knocked unconsciousness before she can let Sykes in.

Much later, Olivia wakes to find herself in a nice bed and still at the house, which is owned by Mrs Maylie (Grainger). With the aid of an Afghani girl called Aziza (Katija), Mrs Maylie explains that Olivia is safe there for as long as she wants to be. Meanwhile, Sykes is worried that Olivia may have talked about his and Fagin’s “business dealings”; they hatch a plan to get her back in their clutches. They get a message to her that’s apparently from Jack, and she agrees to meet “him”. With a riot going on in the city, Fagin and Sykes reckon the police will be too busy to worry about them, but when the pub that Fagin operates out of is raided, Olivia is given a chance to escape her captors for good.

Olivia Twist - scene

Since 2006, the British Youth Film Academy has allowed students to work on (and appear in) some seventeen movies and two television series, and in the process gain the experience necessary for these students to go on and work in the industry. It’s a great initiative, and t’s equally good to see that there’s a structured, sustainable annual programme where budding movie makers can learn skills in a variety of departments, decide on which area they want to concentrate on, and build a career for themselves. In the past, the BYFA has made quite a few movies based on the works of a certain William Shakespeare, but this is their first attempt at adapting Charles Dickens, and while the attempt is to be applauded, the final result is less heartening.

By updating Dickens’ tale to the modern day, and playing it against a background of social and industrial unrest, Olivia Twist seeks to ground itself, and make it sound and feel more relevant to contemporary audiences. On the face of it, it’s a solid idea, and rich with possibilities, but thanks to budgetary constraints and the random nature of director/writer Arno Hazebroek’s screenplay, the movie never really feels relevant or too up-to-date. At one point, Jack Dawkins uses a huge dollop of irony to praise the less-than-attractive area of Stoke-on-Trent that he and Olivia find themselves in, but this is less a comment on the grim functionality of industrial buildings than a clumsy reminder that this is a movie about fateful circumstances and where they can lead you. Stoke-on-Trent is clearly meant to be as much a character as any of the human ones, but a couple of references like Jack’s isn’t enough to elevate the decaying environment to better effect.

The dialogue is another, huge, problem. It’s a curiously uneven, patchwork combination of prose from Dickens’ novel, less obviously archaic forms of speech, and odd snatches of modern day vernacular. This leads to various members of the cast having difficulty sounding confident about what they’re saying, and the meaning of some lines is lost altogether as they sprint through them (and finish with a sense of relief). Unfortunately, this also leads to the drama inherent in the story often losing traction, and there’s an air of some scenes having been included purely to connect one scene to the next as a formality rather than in any organic way.

As a consequence the performances vary wildly in quality, with Mahyoub given the unenviable task of looking worried/perturbed/annoyed/miserable/scared depending on what scene she’s in, and the awkward requirement of reciting the novel’s most famous line at an entirely unconvincing moment in the school cafeteria. Francis fares better than most, and injects a much needed sense of humour into his portrayal of the Artful Dodger figure, while Alcock plays Fagin as an avuncular gang leader who doesn’t quite seem to have the smarts necessary to run such an outfit. Of the rest of the cast, Fleming is perhaps the only member who navigates her role and the dialogue without sounding arch or false. It’s noticeable that other members of the cast look decidedly uncomfortable throughout, and the attendant awkwardness borne out of Hazebroek’s approach to the material only confirms that this is a movie that would have benefitted from more time, more money, and more attention to detail.

Olivia Twist - scene2

It’s a dour movie as well, with a depressing visual style that is no doubt meant to highlight/complement the idea that Olivia’s journey and circumstances are less than desirable. The drabness of the locations used doesn’t help either, though the daytime interiors have a brightness to them that feels like the lighting was designed to compensate for the exteriors (and yet this in its way proves distracting). And yet, with all this detracting from the overall experience, and proving frustrating to watch, the movie does have a certain appeal, and one that allows the viewer to keep watching even though they might be wondering why. The relationship between Olivia and Jack is unexpectedly sweet and believable, and there’s a wonderful transformation at the end that sees Fagin in a jail cell morph from human being to Victorian illustration. It’s moments and flourishes like these that show just how good the movie could have been, and bodes well for future adaptations, but only if more care and attention is made in the process.

Rating: 4/10 – disappointing on so many levels but with an obvious intention to be as good as possible with limited resources, Olivia Twist stumbles and falls far more often than it runs unimpeded; however, it’s still a movie that shouldn’t be overlooked or disparaged too much as this is a first-time effort for most of the crew and within the constraints imposed upon them, they’ve not disgraced themselves.