Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Carissa Horton
Our rating: 4 out of 5
Orphans are some of the most mistreated, neglected, and despised of Gods children. All because they had no control over their circumstances and those of their parents. Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is one such boy. But unlike other boys, Oliver has not allowed the bitterness surrounding him to tarnish the goodness of his spirit. And in that very goodness lies the supposed "evil" nature that his betters suspect. Oliver is honest to a fault, even down to requesting a forbidden "more" for his supper. He earns the loathing of the men in charge of the workhouse where he resides. They do everything within their power to send him away, even down to willingly paying a man to take Oliver off their hands.
And so, little Oliver, no more than ten years old, finds himself working for the local undertaker. Mr. Sowerberry (Michael Heath) seems a kindly man, apart from the ferocious nature of his wife (Gillian Hanna). When it comes down to deciding whether to do right by the boy or obeying his wife, he fails immeasurably. Oliver is left with no choice but to turn his thoughts and feet toward London society, where perhaps he might find a kind soul. With butchered and bleeding feet, Oliver finally drags himself on the last legs of his seventy mile journey to London. Weak and shivering, he catches the sharp eye of a boy known only as the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden). The lad sees Oliver's needs and takes advantage of his obvious youth and naiveté. Dodger drafts young Oliver into a gang of thieves and runaways guided by the elderly hand of Fagin (Ben Kingsley). Fagin seems kind at first, even humorous in his own way, but his association with a man such as Bill Sikes (Jamie Foreman) gives reason for deep suspicion. Oliver cant even comprehend that his new companions are of the thieving variety, even sweet Nancy (Leanne Rowe), girlfriend to Sikes, who has taken Oliver under her wing.
His training in the art of burgling pocket handkerchiefs and pocket books begins, but Oliver is sent out into the street before fully prepared. Perhaps, somehow, he never realized just what the job entailed, and when he first sees the Dodger pinch a pocket hankie from an old man in front of a book store, shock is his first reaction. A reaction which earned him a chase through the streets by people shouting "thief!" and a visit to the nearest magistrate. Thankfully, the abused gentleman becomes aware that Oliver is not to blame for the theft, and goes so far as to bring the boy home with him. Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) is kindly and compassionate, even trusting to a certain level, wanting to believe the best of the child. But Oliver knows too much concerning Fagin's business and he cannot be trusted to keep from squealing. Oliver is about to have his first lesson in the school of hard-knocks.
I have seen at least three versions of Oliver Twist, and each have had their remarkable specialties, be it in cinematography, acting, or musical score. This particular classic has been remade numerous times, with little things changed here and there, but almost always the same sense of storytelling. This version if very dark and morbid, but not so much as to leave you shivering by the end. Oliver is mistreated by way of punches, kicks, and words from various people ranging from his elders to children his own age. Fagin has his good points, one seeming to be an honest affection for the boys under his care. But his bad points include a nasty temper and a tendency to handle sharp objects in a way which makes a threatening point to his youngsters. Sikes. Well, what can you say of him, except that he is ill-mannered, abusive on every level, including woman beating, and wont hesitate to commit murders in the most villainous style. A woman is bludgeoned to death, though off-camera, blood splattered about the room. A dog is vilely treated by its owner, including kicks, and therefore has a temper to match that of its master. A young boy is shot in the arm and while being bandaged, you see the rather ghastly wound. A man is hung by his own clumsiness, but the scene is not as gruesome as some I have witnessed.
Overall, these boys are frightened into submission by people who should be taking on the guise of protector and guardian. The very appearance of London is disgusting and degrading and therefore quite convincing for the time. Spiritually, young Oliver Twist is an inspiring character. He holds true to a belief in God throughout the entire film, no matter his situation. He always believes the best will come of everything, and he possesses a sincere sorrow at the choices made by some of his companions. Any sexual problems are kept to a minimum. Nancy and Sikes are obviously intimate without marriage, but nothing is ever shown or even really implied. Nancy and one of her friends wear extremely low-cut gowns now and again, but also possess modest ones, so you never know which will be in the next scene. There are bawdy sections involving bars with much drinking. The boys, not all mind you, but some, do smoke pipes. Language is used minimally.
I have seen many a young actor in my life. Some good, some poor, but none quite as believable as Barney Clark. The child is a marvel onscreen, really bringing the depth of Olivers character to life. He and his counterpart, John Howard Davies, from the 1948 version, possess an equal amount of talent and I was very impressed with his performance. Ben Kingsley as well, did a superb job. He was humorous, but also possessed a vicious quality that only comes from living on the street your entire life. But in spite of his remarkable performance, I almost found it to be mimicking that of Alec Guinness in the 1948 version. There were too many similarities, even down to the appearance. I only wish that Leanne and Harry had been given more of a chance to shine. Much like I wish Nicholas Rowe's character had been integrated more into the telling of Nicholas Nickleby. What disappointed me most was the performance of Jamie Foreman as Sikes. He could terrify, true, but in the end, I wasn't impressed with the character.
There was no depth to the performance, no real spark that spoke of a man enjoying the role and putting his all into performing it well. I would take Robert Newton's performance any day of the week. What it comes down to is a fantastic storyline containing minor weaknesses. The climax was not as impressive as it could have been. Roman Polanski gives us marvelous cinematography, and a rather engaging musical score, but some scenarios needed to be followed through. I found sections missing from previous versions which would have added a great deal to the film itself. There was much I loved about it, and some that didn't impress me either way. It boils down to what you prefer in a movie. I enjoyed it. I will see it again and gladly. It is a spiritually uplifting film and gives a vast impression of one boys determination to follow what he knows to be right. Oliver never hates, never despises those who hold him in contempt. He is remarkable and I enjoyed the movie more due to his sweet spirit.