Ben Kingsley as Fagin
Barney Clark as Oliver Twist
Jamie Foreman as Bill Sykes
Harry Eden as The Artful Dodger
Leanne Rowe as Nancy
Lewis Chase as Charley Bates
Edward Hardwicke as Mr. Brownlow
Jeremy Swift as Mr. Bumble
Mark Strong as Toby Crackit
Frances Cuka as Mrs. Bedwin
Chris Overton as Noah Claypole
Michael Heath as Mr. Sowerberry
Gillian Hanna as Mrs. Sowerberry
Alun Armstrong as Mr. Fang
Roman Polanski’s faithful version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale is a beautiful piece of cinema, maybe even the best version put on film, but you wonder why a director of his caliber might do something so trivial.
Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is an orphaned boy living in London during the 19th Century, who goes from one home to the next, before being taken in by Fagin (Ben Kingsley), a miserly reprobate, and his ragtag band of pickpockets.
There have been no less than eleven filmed versions of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of a displaced orphan “Oliver Twist,” including the beloved 1968 musical Oliver!, so that would make this at least the 12th. For director Roman Polanski, it may seem like a cleansing film to follow up his powerful Holocaust drama The Pianist, as the director shifts slightly from the dark to the light in hopes of finding a younger audience and getting past the negative connotations still associated with his name.
The story is still the same, showing how young Oliver Twist leaves the orphanage, going from one adopted family to another, before winding up on the streets of London with criminals and murderers. Much of the youth’s back story is ignored in order to get to the famous line “please sir, I want some more,” a bit quicker. This line has often been turned into the climax of past versions, but here, it’s casually discarded early in the film to get it over with and move on to the real story.
Polanski is once again joined by The Pianist‘s screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who stays true to Dickens’ original dialogue and keeps all of the humor inherent in Dickens’ commentary on British social class and London’s faulty judicial system. The latter is best seen when Oliver is pinched for picking the pocket of a wealthy scholar, but the magistrate is more concerned with the latter taking books from a bookstore while chasing after the ragamuffin.
Barney Clarke, who previously appeared in Mike Leigh’s The Lawless Heart, isn’t quite strong enough to carry the film, but once he finds his feet, he does a decent job with the title role, as does the young cast.
Not that it matters because the show is quickly stolen by an almost unrecognizable Sir Ben Kingsley, perfectly cast as Fagin. Kingsley brings a bit more humor and playfulness to what is normally a somewhat dark and menacing role, playing Fagin like a lovable grandfather, a corrupt one that shouldn’t be trusted, mind you, but still a relatively harmless one. More importantly, Kingsley plays Fagin in a way that allows the viewer to sympathize with him. Sometimes he goes a bit over-the-top, but it looks like he had fun interacting with his young cast, especially when they’re showing Oliver the fine art of picking pockets.
Jamie Foreman, also barely recognizable as “The Duke” from Layer Cake, finally finds a decent role, bringing a fierce menace to the villainous Bill Sikes that will make adults as afraid of him as any kid is likely to be. In one scene, he stands in the doorway as a shadowy figure in a way that harks back to the penny dreadful images from that era.
Although the performances are great, the film’s crowning achievement is the production design, as Polanski takes full advantage of his budget to make a beautiful film better suited for the big screen than the versions done for stage or television. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the masterful cinematography helps you to believe that you’ve been transported into the 19th Century London of Dickens’ novel.
Whether modern kids will be able to get past the heavy accents and appreciate Oliver’s adventures is hard to determine, but the story certainly stands the test of time. All of the best parts of Dickens’ tale are included including the dark and violent third act where Sikes’ plans start to take shape. Ironically, it’s also where Polanski is back in familiar territory, so it’s very effective. That said, the epilogue where Oliver visits Fagin in jail, though probably taken from the novel, seems tacked on in order to give Kingsley a bit more screen time.
The Bottom Line:
If you’re a Dickens fans, you’re probably going to love Polanski’s faithful rendition of his best-known work. Although it’s a bit too dark for younger kids, it’s the perfect introduction to this literary classic. It may even someday replace Cliff Notes for the DVD generation. And after awhile, you can get past the lack of musical numbers, too.
Oliver Twist opened in New York and Los Angeles last Friday and expands nationwide this coming Friday.