Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist is strictly by the book. No cutesy songs about wanting more food, and no sugarcoating the harsh life of 19th century England. It is a film that remains entirely faithful to Charles Dickens' immortal novel. But do we really need another cinematic version? Probably not.
The story is the same. Poor little orphaned Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) has had a hard life. Either toiling in a horrible workhouse, or being beaten at a miserable foster home, it's hasn't been easy for the 9-year-old. The boy finally runs away to London, where he is immediately spotted by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a wily pickpocket. He whisks the sickly Oliver off to meet Fagin (Ben Kingsley), the leader of the pickpocket gang. Under the watchful guidance of Fagin and the other boys, Oliver is taught the fine art of lifting. But when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time, and is falsely accused for a theft, Oliver is inadvertently taken under the wing of the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), a rich man who adopts the boy. Finally, some happiness, right? Not if you're in a Dickens novel. No sooner is Oliver contentedly ensconced with Brownlow when tragedy strikes again. Fagin's business partner, the utterly cruel Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman), kidnaps Oliver and forces him to help them rob Brownlow's house. And when that doesn't go so well, Bill then wants to get rid of Oliver. Only with the help of Bill's mistress Nancy (Leanne Rowe), who feels sympathy for Oliver, can the boy be reunited with the only person who has ever showed him any kindness.
In a film full of fine performances from relatively unknown British actors, Ben Kingsley stands out--and rightly so. Finally, Kingsley has been given a part worthy of his talent, and the Oscar-winning actor plays one of literature's more memorable characters to the hilt. Part Shakespeare's Falstaff, part Lord of the Rings' Gollum, Kingsley enjoys playing up Fagin's sprightly nature and physicality. Fagin is a merry prankster, even if he's all hunched over and craggy faced, with a high, squeaky voice and a long, moldy beard. But Fagin suffers. He doesn't really want to corrupt young Oliver. He knows the boy is pure of heart, but he's too afraid of getting caught--or of evoking Bill's wrath--to let Oliver go. Kingsley subtly shows this internal struggle of good and evil raging within Fagin. As far as the rest of the cast, it's interesting to note how all the children are fresh-faced and wide-eyed, especially Clark as the oh-so-fragile yet surprising resilient Oliver and Eden as the crafty but goodhearted Dodger. All the adults, especially the mean-spirited ones, are either very severe and haggard or doughy and sweaty. In fact, the film is a great study in faces, a testament to Polanski's keen eye for the human condition.
Roman Polanski may have made some bad choices in his personal life, but the man sure knows how to make a movie. With Oliver Twist, the Oscar-winning director returns to the 19th century England he so vividly painted in his 1979 Tess--except this time around it's a bleak existence in the mud-caked streets of Victorian London being used as a backdrop instead of the lush English countryside. Polanski and his team painstakingly recreate the newly industrialized London from the ground up. It's a bustling, teeming, frightfully dirty environ, filled with pestilence and vermin of all kinds. It must have been such an awful and a brutal time period to have endured, and Polanski wants to make sure we understand this so we'll be that more amazed by how this little boy survives in it. There are times you almost wish they would break out into song (''Food! Glorious food!''), just to lighten the mood a bit--but of course, that's an entirely different Oliver Twist. And therein lies the film's problem: too many Twists. By count, there's about 18 other versions, either done as feature films or television movies/miniseries--and that's not including the Oscar-winning 1968 musical Oliver!. With all of Polanski's talents, he could have picked something that was a little less of a retread.
Roman Polanski's version of Oliver Twist is definitely a skillfully crafted and well-acted film, probably the most faithful and vivid adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel to date. But hardly anyone will take notice; it's just a tale that's been told too many times before.