Nine-year-old orphan Oliver Twist lives in a squalid workhouse in 19th century England. After being mistreated by the family that has taken him in, Oliver runs away and walks the 70 miles to London, where he encounters conditions more squalid than what he had just left. That’s when he meets Artful Dodger, a young pickpocket and shoplifter who takes him under his wing.
Dodger lives with a twisted wretch of a man, Fagin, who keeps a stable of young boys to pick pockets and steal food for him. Happy to have a “family” that respects him, Oliver learns the art of thievery and sets out with the Dodger and other street urchins on his first mission. Except that he can’t bring himself to steal. No matter. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, he’s grabbed for a crime he didn’t commit and threatened with prison—yes, they threw children in prison back then—until the crime victim, Mr. Brownlow, comes to his defense. Soon, Oliver finds himself in the beautiful manor house of Mr. Brownlow and under the kindly gentleman’s care.
But Fagin and his even meaner “enforcer,” Bill Sykes, can’t let Oliver be. They kidnap him from Brownlow and try to turn him back to a life of crime. Thus begins a battle for Oliver’s soul.
For every venal or downright mean character in this story, there’s a counterpart to model grace and generosity. A humble farmwoman says, “I haven’t much, but you’re welcome to what I have” right after another farmer chases Oliver away with threats of violence. Brownlow goes the extra mile—literally—to make sure Oliver is not treated unjustly and then opens his house and his coffers to the young boy after Mrs. Sowerberry feeds him scraps meant for the dog and makes him sleep on the floor—all while complaining about how hard it is for her to do such “good” works.
And then there’s Oliver himself: Despite being treated worse than a dog by many people, he refuses to give in to bitterness. He has an open, generous spirit and always tries to see the good in others. By story’s end, with tears in his eyes, he even pleads for mercy for Fagin, the man most responsible for the misery he’s been put through. Nancy’s hard heart is eventually softened by Oliver’s example, and she is willing to pay dearly for trying to help him.
As a negative example, the story provides ample evidence of the trouble that can follow by falling in with the wrong crowd and how hard it can be to break away.
Oliver Twist provides many examples of “good works” done with both good and bad motives. The governors who run the orphanage are callous hypocrites. They insist the boys say grace before every meager meal of thin gruel even as they dine on beef Wellington. (The dining hall has the phrases “God Is Holy” and “God Is Truth” painted on the wall.) The head of the dining hall tells the boys, “Say your prayers every night. Pray for those who feed and clothe you, like a good Christian.”
Brownlow swears on a Bible before testifying before the magistrate. Fagin says the greatest sin a man can commit is ingratitude. (He means it as a threat to keep Oliver from running away.) Two friends are said to be “as close as Cain and Abel.” Oliver visits Fagin in prison just before the thief is to be led to the gallows. Oliver says, “Shall we say a simple prayer before we talk?” Oliver breaks down, pleading in prayer, “God forgive this wretched man!”
While it’s never explicitly stated or seen, Nancy and her friend, Bet, are prostitutes, and they often wear push-up blouses that reveal a lot of cleavage.
A lot of whacking goes on in this story. The orphanage master whacks Oliver with his cane when Oliver has the temerity to ask for more gruel, and Mr. Sowerberry spanks Oliver with his cane for “mouthing off” to his wife. (In fact Oliver was merely trying to defend himself against Mrs. Sowerberry’s lies.) Oliver gets in a fistfight with another boy and blackens his eye. Fagin threatens Oliver with scissors, and Dodger threatens Fagin with a hot fireplace poker. Beyond that, there are multiple instances of punches thrown, kicks unleashed and objects thrown. Sykes frequently abuses his dog and later tries to drown it. (The dog escapes.) He also threatens Oliver with a gun, saying, “I’ll spill your brains on the grass.”
We see several drunken brawls. A few characters threaten others with hanging, although it seems more generic bombast than an actual promise. [Spoiler Warning] During a robbery gone awry, a stray bullet hits Oliver in the arm. (We see Oliver’s bloody wound as Fagin treats it.) Sykes grabs Nancy by the hair and threatens to sic his dog on her throat. Another time he backhands her to the floor. And finally, he beats her to death with his cane. (We do not see any of the lethal blows; we do see blood splatter and, later, a pool of blood running under the door.) Police shoot at Sykes as he flees across a rooftop. Sykes then slips and accidentally hangs himself. The camera lingers, albeit from a distance, on the dangling body.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Fagin’s boys frequently smoke. Dodger is fond of a long pipe. Two men snort snuff. A few scenes are set in a pub with drunken revelry going on. Fagin gives Oliver some hot gin. Brownlow says “some good port wine” would revive Oliver better than some weak broth. Fagin gives Oliver some wine to help with the pain of his bullet wound. Toby Crackit will not try to help Oliver until Fagin gives him a drink. Brownlow and friends toast with wine.
Dickensian, adj.: “characteristic of or having the qualities of the writings of Charles Dickens with respect to humor and pathos in the portrayal of odd often extravagant and picturesque character types usually from the lower economic strata of 19th century English society.”
That’s a fine, impersonal dictionary definition of the world created by Charles Dickens in his many novels, although the words “lower economic strata” don’t quite capture the utter squalor of Dickensian London. Director Roman Polanski, known for dark movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, won the best director Academy Award for the grim Holocaust movie The Pianist, and here he expertly recreates another dark world in Oliver Twist. Although like Dickens, he balances it with examples of grace and light.
Polanski said he departed from his usual proclivity in order to make a movie for his children, 7-year-old Elvis and 12-year-old Morgane. (The latter has a small cameo in this film.) I’m not sure if children that age should see this film, though. Sure, there are loads of positive messages, and the overall story is quite uplifting, but there’s some unsettling material to wade through in the meantime. But teens are likely to have to read some Dickens during high school, and adults should read it from time to time, too, just for the sheer enjoyment of it and for a taste of Dickens’ great talent for creating interesting characters populating compelling, compassionate stories. In such case—after said chapters are read—Polanski’s well-executed and faithful-to-the-source Oliver Twist is a rare experience: a well-made, uplifting movie that uses disturbing images not as gratuitous “entertainment” but to better contrast the grace and mercy of its main characters.