As I remarked to my viewing companions upon exiting Roman Polanski’s newest film, “You know, the only thing wrong with it is that it’s Oliver Twist.” (Actually, I had added a descriptive word in front of the title, but my editor would’ve substituted asterisks, so you’d have had to guess at it.) Anyhow, that is indeed the problem.
There have been six theatrical film versions of the Dickens novel, not even counting TV versions and the musical. In school, I read the book (even did a paper comparing it to David Copperfield, with Copperfield the winner) and read it again as an adult. I’ve seen the Frank Lloyd silent with Lon Chaney and Jackie Coogan; the William Cowen cheapie with Irving Pichel and Dickie Moore; the David Lean classic with Alec Guinness and John Howard Davies; and the Carol Reed musicalized version with Ron Moody and Mark Lester. Frankly, I’m just plain Olivered out.
Why doesn’t somebody tackle Barnaby Rudge or Our Mutual Friend for a change?
Polanski has said that he was looking for a property that he could show to his children. (I hate to tell him, but my daughter was a fan of his The Fearless Vampire Killers by the time she was the age of his own kids, and I don’t think she’d have cared much for Oliver Twist then.)
So why, then, give this movie four stars? Well, it’s brilliant and beautiful filmmaking, for one thing. There are moments in it that are as good as anything the director has ever done. The scenes of Oliver (Barney Clark, The Lawless Heart) on the road to London and one shot of him looking through a window might almost have been lifted bodily from Polanski’s most beautiful film, Tess.
There’s scarcely a false note in the staging, and certainly not in the casting. Ben Kingsley’s Fagin is a masterful take on a difficult character that can easily descend into Jewish caricature. Barney Clark gives a solid performance as Oliver — just enough spunk to keep him from being nothing but a victim. The scene where he visits Fagin in jail is a little slice of movie heaven — and easily the most moving moment in the film.
From the standpoint of Polanski’s filmography, Oliver Twist takes on some added points of interest. Traditionally, Oliver tends to be rather fair-haired. Polanski’s Oliver has darker locks, linking him with the director. He’s also given a cap and costumes that inextricably recall Polanski’s Alfred from Fearless Vampire Killers. Similarly, the relationship between Oliver and Fagin seems connected in some ways with that of Alfred and his mentor, Prof. Abronsius (Jack MacGowran), from that same film.
Also, knowing Polanski’s childhood as a Polish Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland makes it impossible not to feel that the director identifies more than a little with his beleaguered young hero. These, however, are concerns that are likely only to be appreciated by diehard Polanski fans.
For anyone else, it all depends on how much you want to see another version of Oliver Twist. Admittedly, Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) have streamlined the story and removed some of its more ridiculous coincidences, but their efforts are still not enough to make this a startlingly fresh take on the material.
The sad thing is that this really is a very fine film. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s still Oliver Twist. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke