Oliver! (1968)
Directed by Carol Reed

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a young orphan living in Victorian England, escapes from the drunken undertaker (Leonard Rossiter) to whom he had been sold and makes his way to London. There he meets the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), a streetwise pickpocket his own age, who introduces him to Fagin (Ron Moody). This conniving but colorful individual, who lives in a dilapidated hovel with a gang of boys he trains to steal, is more than happy to acquire another employee and so lets Oliver stay. Some time thereafter, while accompanying the Artful Dodger while that boy is out earning his keep, Oliver is arrested. When it is revealed in court that Oliver is innocent, however, he ends up being taken in by a wealthy gentleman. Unfortunately, Fagin's accomplice, the violent and cruel Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), fearing the boy may reveal his and Fagin's secrets, decides to abduct him.

Oliver!, Carol Reed's musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, is an entertaining if flawed movie.

The director has created a rich vision of a squalid but lovely Nineteenth Century London populated by a variety of distinctive persons. The least interesting character in the film is, in fact, the lead, who is little more than a cipher, an empty point around which a constellation of fascinating individuals revolves. Happily, these supporting characters really are almost all tremendously entertaining. Sikes, for instance, is frighteningly vicious and lends every scene in which he appears a poignant sense of dread. Fagin is shameless and wicked, but is, at the same time, surprisingly likeable, and the Artful Dodger is a mischievous and cunning little rogue who is invariably fun to watch. Oliver himself, however, is just forgettable. He stares in wonder, joy, or terror at the events happening around him, but he rarely contributes much that is positive to them himself. What is more, he is so painfully adorable that he sometimes suffuses the movie with a sickly and distasteful sweetness.

Even the film's songs are better when performed by these supporting players than they are when sung by the lead. Mark Lester's singing voice is so weak and so saccharine that it is actually annoying. Fortunately, his fellow cast members usually make up for his failings. There are, consequently, numerous musical numbers in the film that are absolutely delightful and sometimes genuinely funny to hear. Additionally, the dances which accompany these songs are consistently lively and well choreographed. Thanks to such virtues, the viewer is likely to find himself carried away by these routines on more than one occasion.

While I cannot say that the film is without shortcomings, Oliver! is, nonetheless, a generally entertaining work that is certainly well worth watching.

Review by Keith Allen

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