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Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist

  • 10 July 2006

Oliver Twist: Director: Roman Polanski. Starring: Barney Clarke, Jermey Swift, Ian McNeice, Timothy Bateson, Ben Kingsley. Running Time: 130 minutes, Rating: PG

Charles Dickens was a scholar of humanity. So who better to interpret his work, the oft-filmed children’s classic Oliver Twist, than acclaimed director Roman Polanski and Academy Award winning screenwriter Ronald Harewood (The Pianist).

Roman Polanski is one of the few great directors still on top of his game, and this results in an immaculately designed snapshot of humanity in the industrial slums of mid-1800s London. Polanski shows a sympathetic eye for the mass of struggling humanity in this great city. Each character is brought to life inside the detailed production design, and even the extras that people the seething streets seem to have a life outside of the film.

The movie is for the most part true to the book, except for a few vital points. Firstly, the subplot concerning the mystery of Oliver's parentage is completely cut, so there is no gold locket, no Monks, no Old Sally and no Mrs Corney. Other than that, it does follow the book very closely, and even has a couple of scenes from the original book that no other film version has included (including Oliver narrowly escaping being apprenticed to a chimney-sweep, and his being briefly sheltered by a kindly old lady on his trek to London).

The film does alter aspects of the story in the second half, mainly to create a broader role for the characters of Fagan and Bill Sykes. Ben Kingsley is brilliant as Fagan, a role he seems to have waited a lifetime to play. His interpretation is full of hints about Fagan’s earlier life, and under Polanski’s deft direction he has perhaps summoned his greatest performance yet.

The fundamental problem with this Oliver Twist is Oliver Twist. Barney Clark seems lost in the title role; it is as if he has been mesmerised by the entire production.

Oliver's sufferings seem to mirror that of children in many places, and across the ages. When it is alleviated, it is not for those benign motivations of charity or civil duty. While a carriage full of prosperous people studiously ignores his plight, a poor old woman who has little herself cares for him. While the wealthy city is content for him to die on the street, a criminal feeds him. When Oliver finally takes his place in the middle class, a priggish religiosity reminds us of Victorian society's cure