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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Oliver! (review)

Touched by an Angel

I know it’s wrong, but I’m madly in love with Mark Lester. Today he’d be about 40, but when I fell in love with him recently he was only 10 years old and starring in Oliver!

Charles Dickens’s mostly gloomy Oliver Twist set to music is no sillier than the French tragedy Les Misérables recast as an English-language opera, and it works just as well — that is to say, very well indeed. Orphaned Oliver (Lester) is forced to slave away in a workhouse for abandoned children, until he gets too troublesome and is — *sob* — sold (to the tune of the pitiful “Boy for Sale”) to an undertaker who forces him into more menial labor. This sweet little waif acts out again and is punished with imprisonment in the undertaker’s cellar, with nothing but (horrors!) coffins for company — as he sadly cheeps out his song “Where Is Love?”, your heart about breaks for him.

I’m telling ya, this child has the face of an angel — you could just eat him up. So you cheer when he escapes from the undertaker and heads for London “to make my fortune.” Instead, innocent Oliver falls in with a gang of kid pickpockets run by Fagin (Ron Moody, who looks like Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid), befriending the streetwise kid the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) and incurring the wrath of the nasty thief Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed, so good that you hate him). Ironically, the criminal Fagin is a better, kinder guardian than Oliver’s had before — Fagin calls his kids “my dears” and means it. (Okay, so maybe he encourages his charges in less-than-legal activities, but then again, the law allowed a child to be sold like chattel.) Still, this isn’t quite the family atmosphere we’d wish upon lovely little Oliver. Happily, wild coincidences allow everything to wrap up in Oliver’s best interests, and bad things come to them what deserve it.

The musical era may have been coming to an end with Oliver!, but it was going out in style. Lionel Bart’s tunes are highly hummable, and the huge production numbers feature lots of fabulous choreography.

The Mark Lester era hadn’t too long to go either — he made a slew of movies into the 70s but then disappeared. I wonder what happened to him. I bet he’s just as cute today as he was 30 years ago.

[reader comments on this review]

Oscars Best Picture 1968
unforgettable movie moment:
In the workhouse mess hall, starving, malnourished, adorable, blond little Oliver approaches the pot filled with gruel, lorded over by one of the factory owners, and bravely says, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

previous Best Picture:
1967: In the Heat of the Night
next Best Picture:
1969: Midnight Cowboy

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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Oliver! (1968) | directed by Carol Reed
US/Can release: Dec 10 1968
UK/Ire release: Sep 27 1968

MPAA: rated G
BBFC: rated U

viewed at home on a small screen

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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