Roman Polanski’s decision to remake “Oliver Twist” after his Oscar winning turn in “The Pianist” reflects his own harrowing childhood in Poland during the Second World War. As a Holocaust survivor, “The Pianist” was a tale of survival against brutal odds. “Oliver Twist” is what happens when an innocent child becomes a pawn in the ruthless games of adults. The film is a much darker and sobering view of the Charles Dickens classic. It is brilliantly shot with an incredibly realistic depiction of Victorian-era England. Polanksi’s masterful touch is evident in every frame of this wonderful film. It is another grand achievement by one of film’s greatest auteurs.
Barney Clark stars as the orphaned Oliver Twist. He’s sent to an orphanage where all the children work like slaves separating pieces of rope. Oliver has the audacity to ask for more food and is immediately branded a troublemaker. He’s carted off to work for an undertaker, but is beaten and mistreated by his new masters. Oliver runs away. He walks a vast distance to London, where arrives starving and bloody. He’s immediately noticed by the teenage pickpocket, The Artful Dodger (Harry Eden). The Dodger takes Oliver to the lair of his master, Fagin (Ben Kingsley), a hunchbacked old thief who runs a gang of child miscreants. Fagin nurses Oliver back to health, all the while teaching him the art of theft and deception. Oliver embraces his newfound family, but is still a gentle boy and not easily corrupted.
Oliver lands himself in big trouble while watching The Dodger employ his skills. He’s mistaken for the thief and winds up in jail. But Oliver’s fortunes change when he’s cleared of all charges and taken in by the kind and wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke). Just when Oliver believes he’s found happiness, his troubles begin anew when Fagin’s partner, the vile criminal Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), decides to use him to rob Mr. Brownlow. Oliver soon finds himself in a web of murder and deception, where the life he must save is his own.
Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist almost two hundred years ago, but the plight of abandoned children still remains the same. Polanski embraces this theme and takes great pains to show how helpless Oliver really is. The boy is beaten, bloodied, starved, and threatened throughout the film. He’s rarely treated with gentleness. Adults, except for Mr. Brownlow, see Oliver as someone that can be exploited for their personal gain. It’s a grim reality and Polanski wants his audience to understand it. But he treat’s Oliver as a complex character that is able to forgive the people who have harmed him. In the film’s most emotional scene, Oliver thanks Fagin for saving his life, even though Fagin turned him over to Bill Sykes. It is a moment of redemption beautifully captured and shows Oliver’s keen perception of his surroundings.
Polanski does a superb job casting the film. Ben Kingsley, who will see another Oscar nomination for this role, is absolutely amazing as Fagin. He takes one of history’s great literary characters and transforms him into something completely his own. The glint in Fagin’s eyes when he opens his jewelry box, his high-pitched voice, his stooped, cowering nature; it all belongs to Kingsley’s eccentric interpretation. He immerses himself in Fagin and becomes unrecognizable. Alec Guinness and Ron Moody were highly acclaimed Fagin’s in previous versions of Oliver Twist. Kingsley distinguishes himself from those performances. Every actor playing Fagin from this point will undoubtedly be compared to Kingsley’s.
Polanski used the same team from “The Pianist” to make Oliver Twist. These people are truly expert filmmakers. Every facet of this film superbly done, the production is just a glory to behold on screen. Film is a collaborative art form and it’s rare to see everything fit so cohesively together. I was in awe of this film’s look from the opening frame. The costumes, sets, cinematography, and editing are easily among the best of the year.
Oliver Twist is a great film in a sea of mediocrity currently in theaters. It won’t have a major release, so audiences will have to search to find it. A few have criticized Oliver Twist for being too dark and didn’t recommend it for children. That is utter nonsense. Oliver Twist is a highly pertinent film in today’s world. Children would sympathize with Oliver’s travails and hopefully gain some understanding of what the less fortunate have to endure.