Home > Reviews > OLIVER TWIST – Rachel Portman

OLIVER TWIST – Rachel Portman

September 23, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

olivertwistOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been dozens of cinematic versions of Oliver Twist over the years, from the earliest days of Hollywood, to David Lean’s 1948 classic with Alec Guinness and music by Sir Arnold Bax, and the beloved 1968 Lionel Bart musical starring Ron Moody and Oliver Reed. Almost the last person you would expect to make one is Roman Polanski, but make one he has – this time featuring the talents of Ben Kingsley as Fagin, the relatively unknown Jamie Foreman as Bill Sikes, and the totally unknown Barney Clark in the title role. For those who have never seen any of the screen versions, or read Charles Dickens’ classic 1838 novel, about a young orphan boy in a workhouse in London who, having had the temerity to ask for “more food”, is thrown out onto the streets. There he meets a young tearaway known as The Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), the leader of a gang of child pickpockets overseen by the nefarious Fagin, who keeps the ragamuffins fed and clothed in exchange for a home. Oliver soon falls into a new, licentious lifestyle, but dreams of a better life away from the streets. As much as he tries to escape, circumstance keeps pulling him back into the clutches of Fagin, the boorish and violent Bill Sikes, and Sykes’s good-hearted but downtrodden girlfriend Nancy.

Having worked with just four different composers – Philippe Sarde, Vangelis, Ennio Morricone and Wojciech Kilar – since 1976, it comes as something of a surprise to see Roman Polanski working with Rachel Portman on Oliver Twist. People often accuse Rachel Portman of only having one compositional style, and to a large extent this is true: Oliver Twist, like many of her previous works, is predominantly light in tone, and features the usual combination of pianos, jaunty strings and bouncing woodwinds in the orchestration, with just small amounts of brass and percussion. There is nothing truly distinct about it to make it specifically an Oliver Twist score. Portman never alludes to the time setting or the geographical location of her movies. This could be Nicholas Nickleby, Chocolat, The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Cider House Rules. In other words, Oliver Twist could be virtually any Rachel Portman written in the last fifteen years.

The majority of Portman’s music is as light and jaunty as ever, building from a sprightly, vaguely renaissance-ish trumpet-led dance first heard in the opening track, “Streets of London”, and regularly thereafter. “The Artful Dodger” has a rather comic clarinet motif, recapitulated in “Oliver Learns the Hard Way”, “Wanted: Bill Sykes & A Fierce Dog” and others. The beginning of “The Road to the Workhouse” is a little more downbeat, led by a forlorn clarinet solo, and to give Portman a little credit, she does make a valiant attempt to inject some darkness into her music, especially through cues such as “The Robbery”, which allow low, sneaky oboes and a vaguely Kilar-ish bass passacaglia to enter the fray. Portman even has a go at some action set-pieces, pitching “Fagin’s Loot” the second half of “Oliver Learns the Hard Way”, “The Escape from Fagin” and “The Murder” with a series of fast-pased cello phrases and heavy bass chords.

The one overriding factor in all this, however, is the fact that regardless of how repetitive her sound is or how little she varies her writing from score to score, her music remains eminently listenable and enjoyable. Oliver Twist is never anything less than a charming listen, elegant and classy, and with a feeling of clarity in the orchestrations and the overall tone that does credit to Portman, conductor David Snell and the City of Prague Philharmonic. As such, its difficult to be dismissive of Oliver Twist because, on CD, the score is wholly agreeable. I’m just not sure that it would work in context, and I’m also rather disappointed about Portman’s lack of compositional scope and seeming lack of ambition in writing scores which challenge her writing style. On the whole, Portman’s music for Oliver Twist sounds more like it should be accompanying a breezy Noel Coward farce, or a sun-kissed romance set in the rolling Tuscan hills, not a rather tragic and cold tale of murder, robbery and orphaned children on the hard streets of Victorian London.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Streets of London (2:01)
  • The Road to the Workhouse (3:03)
  • A Kind Old Woman (2:05)
  • Oliver Runs Away (2:31)
  • The Artful Dodger (1:49)
  • Fagin’s Loot (2:55)
  • The Game (2:15)
  • Oliver Learns the Hard Way (5:39)
  • Watching Mr Brownlow’s House (2:17)
  • The Escape from Fagin (1:13)
  • Prelude to a Robbery (1:49)
  • The Robbery (5:09)
  • Toby and the Wounded Oliver (1:20)
  • Nancy’s Secret Journey (2:29)
  • The Murder (2:28)
  • Wanted: Bill Sykes and a Fierce Dog (2:50)
  • The Death of Bill Sykes (6:12)
  • Newgate Prison (5:21)

Running Time: 53 minutes 26 seconds

Sony Classical SK-96506 (2005)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by David Snell. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Rachel Portman, Jeff Atmajian and Patrick Russ. Recorded and mixed by Chris Dibble. Album produced by Rachel Portman.

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