Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"The Optimists" is a little bit of magic

Cleveland Press October 25, 1973

There is the eccentric crotchety old man, the two little kids who annoy him and then charm him and there is a dog.

You've seen it before but seldom have you seen it so well done as in an English film entitled "The Optimists."

"The Optimists" very sharply defines the separate worlds of children and adults and, the no-man's land where those worIds come together, sometimes abrasively, sometimes with understanding.

It is a picture loaded with charm -- and charm isn't worth 10 cents at the box office. This is a shame because while pictures of this sort are made from time to time they are seldom made so well and so honestly.

The crotchety old gent is played by Peter Sellers in a performance that has more discipline and skill than this actor has shown in years.

He portrays a busker, a London street performer. He's an ex-music hall performer down on his luck. With a tin cup tied to his dog's collar he entertains for whatever small change a passerby will toss him.

The two kids are an 11year-old girl and her six year-old brother, a couple of cockney kids from a near poverty background. The youngsters tease the old man, follow him around, finally become part of his world.

He introduces them to a magical world that transcends the rubbish heaps and smoky air they know. In return they bring him back into contact with a world of real people.

Matters work their way to a climax when the children scrape together enough coins to buy a dog of their awn which puts them in trouble with their parents.

But while the story develops predictably, the handling of it is not predictable, not by the usual movie standards.

The children, played beautifully by a couple of non professionals are hardly the Iittle angels of most movies. They are soiled and cheeky, talking to their elders in a manner that would make them deserve a smack on the mouth.

They live in neglect. Not purposeful neglect, not horrible neglect. It's just that both parents work and their world is a rough adult world, an existence that doesn't take into account children that are suddenly growing up and need something more than feeding.

The changes that occur in all the characters happen slowly and never completely. Everyone is a little distrustful of everyone else.

Much of Sellers' dialog is in the form of soundtrack musings, made of bits of music hall routines -- old jokes, lines from songs.

The tunes he sings and the background music are by Lionel Bart ("Oliver") and they are about the only overly sentimental things in the movie, but not damagingly so.

The children, Donna Mullane and John Chaffey, are wonderful with the girl having an intensity about her that makes you think she is able to look right through people.

The London is not the tourist London. There's a little bit of the West End but these kids live on the wrong side of the Thames and it is there in the crowded housing and the shanties and rubbish dumps that the movie takes place.

Writer-director Anthony Simmons adapted his own novel for the film. His touch has been right throughout. He has a feel for the fantasy of childhood without losing grip on reality. And though this is a family movie it is one that may be better understood by adults than children.

"People like you bring kids into this world," says Sellers, "but don't know all about -- about bringing a little magic into life."

Most movie makers don't know about magic either. But the people who made "The Optimists" know.