"Legalism, Lawlessness & Gentle Christian Charity"

Content: +1 Discernment required for young children.

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What You Need To Know:

OLIVER TWIST is a beautifully realized, slightly theatrical movie version of the novel by Charles Dickens. In this well-known story, a poor young orphan in Victorian England makes his painful way to London after being abused in a workhouse and an undertaker's shop. Destitute in the big city, Oliver gets impressed into a gang of young thieves, led by an elderly, wily criminal named Fagin. When Oliver gets caught by the police and rescued by a gentleman benefactor, Fagin and his evil cohort Bill Sykes plan to kidnap Oliver and rob the benefactor. Things go from bad to worse, and Sykes threatens Oliver's very life.

This OLIVER TWIST wonderfully manages to heighten the jeopardy. Directed with skill, the movie beautifully contrasts the goodness within Oliver, plus the goodness of his benefactor and Sykes' girlfriend, with the villainy threatening them. The climax comes, however, when the grace in Oliver's heart leads him to plead to God for mercy and forgiveness for Fagin. Thus, it rebukes both legalism and lawlessness in favor of gentle God-given Grace. OLIVER TWIST is one of the best of 2005, but the violence and tragedy demand a caution for young children.


(BBB, CC, PC, L, VV, N, AA, D, M) Very strong moral worldview with positive references to God and forgiveness and a powerful appeal to praying a prayer of forgiveness, marred by legalistic Christian orphanage with forced prayers, and mean-spirited banners about God, and brief political correctness when mean-spirited, stingy woman makes a snide comment about being "liberal," thus implying that conservatives are like she is; four "d" words and a few old-style English sounding like "Gaw!" or "Gol!" which may be slang for the light profanity, "God!"; brief strong violence such as boys fight, man slaps woman, a few drops of blood splatter table as man beats woman to death off screen, pool of blood when a murder victim is discovered, man tries to drown dog, man falls in river, policemen fire pistols at murderer, boy shot in arm, bloody gash in boy's arm where he has been shot, people kidnap boy, villain threatens people with violence, man accidentally hangs himself, and references to public hangings; no sex scenes, but unmarried villain seems to live with girlfriend and couple in saloon in poverty-stricken area are seen hugging closely as they flirt; brief upper male nudity; alcohol use, including by some children during Victorian Age, and two or three brief scenes in saloon with drunken rowdy people; smoking pipes, including by some children; and, kidnapping, stealing, picking pockets, elderly man teaches boys to steal, attempted burglary, minor character is a henpecked husband, and weak clergyman in scene with officials who run workhouse.

More Detail:

Screened by MOVIEGUIDE® at the Toronto Film Festival and in Los Angeles, OLIVER TWIST is a beautifully realized filmed version of the famous novel by Charles Dickens. Though it is not the definitive movie version (that title may still go to the 1948 version by David Lean), it is an absorbing, poignant drama about the trials and tribulations of the poor orphan boy in Victorian England.

Unlike Lean’s version, which opens with the death of Oliver’s poor mother, this OLIVER TWIST begins with Mr. Bumble dragging poor Oliver through muddy streets to the workhouse. There, Oliver is forced to work with hundreds of other boys who are recycling bits of rope for the Royal Navy. You’re serving your country, my boy, one of the workhouse officials tells Oliver, but the only things they give the boys to eat are clumps of porridge or oatmeal. Stern prayers and stark banners extolling God’s justice reinforce the legalism of the orphanage.

Oliver quickly gets into trouble when, by drawing lots, he becomes the unfortunate boy who must ask for more food. Considered a troublemaker, Oliver is sold to a meek undertaker and his mean, ugly wife. Unhappy and mistreated by the wife and the undertaker’s helper, Oliver runs away to London.

Hungry and destitute in London, Oliver runs into The Artful Dodger, a slightly older boy who introduces Oliver to a gang of young thieves, led by an unattractive old man named Fagin. Fagin teaches Oliver the finer points of pickpocketing, but Oliver gets caught by the police on his first trip out with The Artful Dodger.

Oliver is saved from prison by a kindly gentleman named Mr. Brownlow who takes custody of the boy. Fagin and his violent cohort, Bill Sykes, are concerned, however, that Oliver will reveal the whereabouts and identity of their criminal gang. They hatch an evil plan to kidnap Oliver and rob Mr. Brownlow.

Of course, things go from bad to worse, and Sykes eventually threatens Oliver’s very life.

As with all movie versions of this story, even David Lean’s, OLIVER TWIST cuts out many plot details from Dickens’ masterpiece. Even so, this OLIVER TWIST manages to heighten the jeopardy for our diminutive hero, who, despite getting into a fight with the undertaker’s help, is a gentle, kindly boy with a big forgiving heart. In fact, despite all the trials Oliver goes through from the evil people surrounding him in London, the emotional climax of the movie comes in a scene where Oliver pleads for forgiveness from God for one of the worst people who has tried to lead him astray. Thus, the movie often reveals the grace and love that lies in Oliver’s little heart, not to mention the heart of Mr. Brownlow and Nancy, Sykes’ mistreated girlfriend.

Little Barney Clark as Oliver does a marvelous job in this heartfelt moment, as he does in the rest of the movie. Ben Kingsley (GANDHI and SXCHINDLER’S LIST) is simply amazing as the horrible, wretched Mr. Fagin. Kinsgley completely disappears into the role as if God intended him to play it. It was also nice to see Edward Hardwicke as Mr. Brownlow, because it reminded us that Mr. Hardwicke also once played Dr. Watson on TV in a series on Sherlock Holmes. This version of OLIVER TWIST may remind viewers who love Sherlock Holmes that this novel by Dickens is like a mystery novel with Victorian gangsters, the kind of Victorian villains that Holmes and Watson sometimes encounter too.

Director Roman Polanski does a fine job of depicting Oliver’s world and Victorian England. The cinematography, set design, costumes, and makeup are equally wonderful. Only the opening credits diminish the quality of the production. The filmmakers handle the story in a naturalistic manner, which gives it a realistic edge that enhances the jeopardy to the hero.

Some may think that this version cuts out too much from the book and others may be disappointed that Polanski and his crew don’t take more chances with the story and characters, but MOVIEGUIDE®’s reviewers enjoyed this movie. It is well made and has a lot of heart, though, as with most movies, it could be better. The last 20 minutes, however, are some of the finest in this year’s movies in terms of intense, jeopardy driven dramatic action and dialogue, punctuated by a powerful prayerful appeal to repentance and reformation by young Oliver.

Like other versions of OLIVER TWIST, however, Bill Sykes abuses and murders his girlfriend, Nancy, who tries to save Oliver. This version also shows a splatter of blood as Bill beats Nancy to death off screen, and there is a pool of blood when her body is discovered. There is also some other violence showing the jeopardy threatening Oliver and his friends.

Thus, MOVIEGUIDE® is issuing a caution for young children. In the final analysis, however, OLIVER TWIST is one of the best movies of the year rebuking both legalism and lawlessness in favor of gentle God-given Grace.

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