A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the film includes occasional brutal images of Oliver's suffering. He's beaten, starved, teased, tortured, and beaten some more. Scenes show Oliver sleeping in a box and in the street, in ragged clothes with bloodied feet and dirty face, bullied by bigger boys, chased by police and arrested, and kidnapped by thieves. Characters fight, smoke, and drink to the point of passing out. Some images are darkly shadowed and potentially frightening for younger viewers. The film makes clear that girls work as prostitutes. And one young woman is murdered, with some struggle, screaming, and blood splatter.
What's the story?
Kicked out of a workhouse because he asks for more lumpy oatmeal, Oliver (Barney Clarke) is shipped off to a household where he's abused mercilessly, then escapes to London (walking some 70 miles), where he's adopted first by the dreadful Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), to pick pockets, and then by kindly bookseller Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke). Once Fagin's partner-in-crime, Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman) gets wind of the boy's disappearance into decency, the hunt is on. And Oliver can only be buffeted by the forces determined to use him for their own ends, whether nefarious or benevolent.
Is it any good?
This OLIVER TWIST is nothing like the 1968 musical; no one is happy to be poor and dirty, and ongoing lack of hope makes street kids more desperate and crude than cute. Still, in Roman Polanski's film of Dickens' saga, Oliver is mostly adorable. In part, this is because he's so frail and pale and broken -- vulnerability and victimization make him sympathetic, of course, as does his stubborn faith in human goodness. The, er, twist here has to do with Oliver's brutal, eventually insane pickpocket mentor, Fagin, an infamously Anti-Semitic character, more than once imagined through blatantly anti-Semitic filters, with hook nose and bent body to reflect his depraved and ugly soul. Here he's the villain who does the right thing, recalling the decent Nazi officer who helped the utterly wasted Szpilman to live because he appreciated his playing.
Oliver Twist runs into the usual problems of films based on Dickens -- it's episodic and long (130 minutes). It's also dark and evocative, beautifully shot by Pawel Edelman, and occasionally violent, when Oliver is beaten, kidnapped, injured, and kidnapped again. That Oliver is so relentlessly caught up, carried, imprisoned, and beaten down, makes him an effective, if conventional, sign of ongoing and terrible classism. It also makes him a curious protagonist, not quite chameleonic, as he retains his gullible sweetness throughout, but certainly malleable and abject. Parents may want to consider their children's sensitivities before allowing their kids to watch.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the film's depiction of alternative families. When the orphan Oliver runs away from the workhouse, he finds two substitute units, in conflict with one another: the wealthy, kindly bookseller, and the initially romantic-seeming cadre of young crooks (including the Artful Dodger). How does Oliver make his decision (or how is it made for him)? How does Oliver's suffering make him sympathetic? How do the criminals change in his eyes, from friendly to threatening?