2005, PG-13, 130 min. Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, Leanne Rowe, Edward Hardwicke, Mark Strong.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 7, 2005
This faithful and unsentimental adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved novel Oliver Twist may initially seem an odd directorial choice for Roman Polanski, a filmmaker primarily associated with the darker and more disturbing elements of human experience. But given Polanski’s traumatic Polish childhood – his father and mother were both deported to labor camps during World War II, leaving him in the care of a succession of families for the war’s duration – it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that he would be drawn to the titular orphan who experiences both kindness and cruelty as a young lad in Victorian England. From the time that he is coaxed by his fellow waifs and strays at the poorhouse to ask for more gruel to eat, Oliver is a strangely passive character, almost Candide-like as he goes from fortune to misfortune with alarming regularity. Homeless and hungry on the streets of London, he is taken in by the Artful Dodger to live with a band of young pickpockets, with the expectation that he trade his virtuousness for the life of a petty criminal. Though this new environment provides him a safe haven and necessary lessons in survival, it also aims to exploit him. This dichotomy is best personified by Fagin, the elderly fence who runs the pickpocket household with equal measures of benevolence and malevolence. As Fagin, Kingsley (unrecognizable in the role) captures the moral ambivalence of a character that too often has been portrayed as an anti-Semitic caricature. (In contrast, Ron Moody’s turn as Fagin in the 1968 movie musical, Oliver!, comes off like a Jewish vaudevillian working the Borscht Belt.) Clark’s delicate features and doe-eyed stare are well-suited to Dickens’ innocent, but the child actor doesn’t elicit sympathy under false pretenses. This is due in large part to Polanski’s straightforward direction, which eschews big dramatic moments and dewy close-ups. As in The Pianist, Polanski is content to allow the film’s narrative to evoke the emotions he wishes his audience to experience. To this end, there are moments in his Oliver Twist that are almost unbearable to watch, as Polanski’s good-hearted protagonist unfairly suffers yet another indignity through no fault of his own. Some may have wondered whether there was a need to bring Dickens’ tale to the screen one more time, but Polanski’s deft adaptation proves that there’s still life in that well-worn story of a boy who beats the odds.