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Twist with a twist

31 October 2005

 Boy Called Twist (Tim Greene, South Africa, 2004). Ritzy Cinema, Oct 29 14:15

Nothing ruins a good classic like a modern day adaptation, I always thought. The beautiful poetry of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet disappears in a whirl of gangland shootings with a rap soundtrack; or Pride and Prejudice is half-heartedly reduced to a saccharine tale of discord and romance. Invariably, the plot is lost and the writer’s original sentiment is warped beyond recognition.

So I had a few reservations when I went to see Boy Called Twist by Tim Greene, a modern day version of Charles Dickens’ classic, Oliver Twist. I was proved spectacularly wrong. Set in Cape Town with a script that is a mixture of English and Afrikaans, the film successfully manages to make the 170-year-old story relevant to a contemporary audience. It is a damning indictment of humanity that the misery and exploitation of Dickens’ London should still be evident in the poorer cities of today. Boy Called Twist is a clever and beautifully filmed reminder that nothing really changes.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Oliver Twist is an orphan boy who is passed from exploitative adult to exploitative adult, before finding a home with a kindly gentleman who turns out to be his grandfather. There are already two previous well-known screen adaptations of Oliver Twist, so it may seem unnecessary to have another, especially as Roman Polanski’s acclaimed version is still showing in the cinemas. Boy Called Twist, however, is such an honest and moving portrayal of real-life poverty and race in South Africa, that it adds infinite depth to the story without detracting a jot from the original.

In this version the protagonist is simply Twist, with no surname – a bizarre choice of name that comes from an orphanage’s peculiar practice of naming new arrivals after the books on its shelves. Oliver is already taken, so the new boy is called Twist, along with others who are lumbered with such monikers as Middlemarch and Gulliver. This is a hilarious nod to Dickens and an early indication that the film is faithful to the book. All the major characters share the same names as those in Dickens’ novel and the plot is shortened but otherwise unchanged.

Twist, played brilliantly by Jarrid Geduld, is a character with such honesty and innocence that it is impossible not to love him. In Dicken’s novel, Oliver’s ‘saviour’ after he escapes the misery of the workhouse, is Fagin, a miserly old man who offers shelter to a bunch of street children in return for the fruits of their pick-pocketing. In this film, Fagin is a dreadlocked black man in a long black coat, and the street children are ghetto kids who are constantly high on drugs or drink. They are the scourges of Cape Town. Yet ultimately their loyalty to a man as abusive as Fagin is proof that even the toughest of street kids need a family.

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