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Barney Clark as Oliver in 'Oliver Twist'

Movie Info


PG-13 for disturbing images.


September 30, 2005 (wide)


Drama and Kids/Family


Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Jamie Foreman, Frank Finlay, Harry Eden


Roman Polanski


Ronald Harwood


Charles Dickens


Columbia Pictures


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In providing movie reviews on our site, is not endorsing or recommending films we review. Our goal is to provide Christians with information about the latest movies, both the good and the bad, so that our readers may make an informed decision as to whether or not films are appropriate for them and their families.


Oliver Twist

By Nathaniel Bell
Guest Reviewer - Roman Polanski’s latest film, a handsomely mounted adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic, is not the masterpiece one would expect from the creative team responsible for The Pianist. Comparable to last year’s Vanity Fair, it plays like a perfectly acceptable Classics Illustrated comic with moments of greatness flecked throughout a rather stodgy and workmanlike presentation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to botch a story this good, and even if the filmmakers fail to mine Dickens’ text for all its spiritual possibilities, one can be grateful for the small victories.

Most film adaptations of Dickens’ work, like Douglas McGrath’s recent Nicholas Nickleby, offer pleasure in large, exaggerated strokes. Cruelty and kindness are doled out in such alarming quantities it would require an act of purest willpower to suppress an emotional response. Though Oliver Twist (which Dickens first published in monthly installments between 1837 and 1839) was written primarily as a rejoinder to the child labor laws that haunted London at the time, it’s unfair to reduce the story to a single social statement. It’s like saying Moby-Dick is just a book about a whale.

By now everyone should be familiar with the story of Oliver, a parish orphan who escapes the horrors of the workhouse only to be abused by his newly adopted family. Running away to London, he encounters a band of thieving street urchins led by the treacherous Fagin, sustains several dangerous confrontations, and is finally rescued by the benevolent Mr. Brownlow. Some of Dickens’ favorite themes are on display, including the need for love during one’s formative years, the hypocrisy of espousing cruelty in the name of religion, and the tendency of the environment to shape a person’s character. The film’s poster art, which shows a silhouetted Oliver caught in a tug-of-war between the two primary influences in his life, illustrates the story’s basic conflict: a battle over Oliver’s soul.

Over the years, many critics have found fault with the temperament of the titular character, often complaining that the child (as well as the actor playing him) is too feeble to carry an entire epic on his frail shoulders. This is a common misconception. Though Oliver remains the center of the story around which the entire plot furiously spins, he is hardly called upon to provide the film with personality. He is innocence incarnate, a blank slate whose moral fiber is yet to be determined. Like Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins, he is the one with whom we are meant to identify, as Polanski himself (orphaned during World War II) has clearly done. It is a deceptively simple role, and the young actor elected to play him, an English boy named Barney Clark, rises nicely to the challenge. A winsome lad whose angelic countenance is forever at odds with the squalor of his surroundings, Clark is a magnet for audience empathy, and proves a worthy performer during the film’s tenser passages.

Barney Clark as Oliver and Ben Kingsley as Fagin in 'Oliver Twist'He is surrounded by a well appointed cast that includes Jamie Foreman as the sadistic Bill Sykes, Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger, and Leanne Rowe as the ill-fated Nancy. Though all of them acquit themselves satisfactorily, acting honors go to Ben Kingsley as Fagin, whose scraggly beard and diminutive front teeth give him a curiously feral appearance. As the conniving, greedy, yet somehow compassionate leader of the pint-sized pickpockets, Fagin is one of English literature’s most memorable creations. Kingsley’s fresh take on the role demands a more sympathetic reading of the character than audiences have previously seen, and it is altogether triumphant.

Polanski, once again working with brilliant cinematographer Pawel Edelman and production designer Allan Starski, evokes a rich portrait of Dickensian England (the dirt and grime of London’s industrialized streets have never been more photogenic), and Rachel Portman’s expressive folk score manages to sum up the spirit of Dickens in a single lyrical theme. It’s curious, then, that the film should falter in spite of brilliant technical support, a host of spirited players, and a story that’s practically foolproof. Perhaps it’s that Polanski and his screenwriter Ronald Harwood are too slavishly faithful to the text to pause for reflection. The film hums when it should sing. Indeed, it’s difficult to see why, after David Lean’s majestic 1948 production and Carol Reed’s stirring 1968 musical, this version was made at all.

Until the very last scene.

It is difficult to articulate just how much power, tragedy, and emotional truth are contained in the denouement, but these precious final moments somehow exonerate a generally turgid first two hours, and are the film’s raison d'être. Beautifully rendered, it is one of the most sublime endings of recent years, and it comes close to surpassing everything Polanski has done thus far. For over four decades, the director has acquired a reputation for exploring the darkest corners of the human experience, but his Oliver Twist is refreshingly free of cynicism. Though the film is a disappointment, it is of the noblest sort.

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Nathaniel Bell is a film critic in Southern California. Review used by permission.


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