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"Oliver Twist" - Polanski's Moral Victory

"Oliver Twist" - Polanski's Moral Victory

Release Date: September 30, 2005 (wide release)
Rating: PG-13 (disturbing images)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 130 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Actors: Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Forman, Harry Eden, Edward Hardwicke

Acclaimed but notorious filmmaker Roman Polanski – who resides outside the United States because of charges brought against him decades ago for having sex with a minor – has directed one of this year’s finest family films. Polanski’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel, "Oliver Twist," is a triumph of deliberately paced storytelling, bravura acting and moral uplift, seasoned with just enough humor to sustain viewers through a story that is, at times, overwhelmingly bleak.

The familiar tale, previously filmed by Carol Reed as an Oscar-winning musical ("Oliver!") and by David Lean, among others, will be familiar to many, but Polanski’s update provides a worthy introduction to the story for younger filmgoers.

Barney Clark plays Oliver Twist, an orphan dismissed by his aloof caretakers as a criminal in the making. His situation goes from bad to worse when, eager to be rid of the 10-year-old Oliver, his superiors ship him off to a home where he’s treated as nothing more than a piece of property.

Polanski populates these early sequences with a collection of actors who have distinctive – even exaggerated – facial features, accentuated by overbearing point-of-view shots that further emphasize the unfeeling, uncaring oversight to which Oliver is subjected. However, these early scenes also provide a few moments of levity, helping to offset the misery of Oliver’s situation even as they elicit sympathy for his plight. 

Oliver eventually makes his way to London, where he’s befriended by the Artful Dodger and introduced to Fagin (the marvelous Ben Kingsley), a hideous shell of a man who forms an unlikely bond with young Oliver.

Schooled in the art of pickpocket-ing by Fagin, Oliver soon finds himself falsely accused of stealing, yet this event sows the seeds of grace in Oliver’s life: The victim, Mr. Brownlow, exonerates Oliver and seeks to adopt the young man. “I know there is good in him,” Brownlow explains – the first expression of hope for Oliver, who stands on a precipice between a life of crime with Fagin, or a life of refinement and education with Brownlow.

As Oliver wrestles with his conscience, Fagin does as well. Under the thumb of ominous thug Bill Sykes, Fagin is entreated to murder Oliver, deemed untrustworthy by Sykes. Will Fagin turn on Oliver, or will he yield to the better angels of his nature?

The shifting relationship between these two characters lends the film a deep emotional resonance, giving the story a moral dimension and dramatic weight that elevate this richly observed tale of children abandoned by society, yet yearning for approval from Fagin, the most unsavory of elders.

The story’s bloody finale pushes the otherwise family-friendly film into a realm that isn’t appropriate for all ages. Still, the grace notes in the film’s closing moments pack a strong emotional punch – a reminder that the most wretched of men aren’t far from God’s mercy – or his justice.

AUDIENCE:  Adolescents and up


  • Language/Profanity:  Foreboding suggestions about Oliver’s worth as a human being; a man in court says, “Damn me.”
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Fagin gives Oliver hot gin mixed with water; the young pickpockets smoke pipes.
  • Sex/Nudity:  None.
  • Violence:  Oliver attacks a boy who insults the memory of Oliver’s mother; Oliver is beaten as a punishment; Fagin threatens Oliver with a sharp instrument and later strikes him; a man kicks a dog; Oliver is pursued as a crime suspect and punched in the face; loaded guns are aimed at various characters; a character is wounded by gunfire; an open wound is treated; someone is brutally murdered and blood is splattered; a man is hanged.
  • Crime:  Oliver is trained as a pickpocket.