Many may wonder why a new Oliver Twist is on the big screen. Roman Polanski wants to do Charles Dickens his way, a contrast between David Lean's grimly wondrous version and Carol Reed's 1968 upbeat musical.
It is a tale of a child's survival in Victorian England that doesn't match up with Polanski's amazing depiction of World War II Warsaw ghetto life in The Pianist. Yet, for all of the ways it can detach an audience perhaps by sticking to convention, this dark Twist is a worthy adaptation.
Barney Clark is the titular character with a bit of wistfulness and more intelligence for a 10-year-old in a rough workhouse. The screenplay by Ronald Harwood (Being Julia, The Pianist) has the boy entering into an eye-opening experience for sure.
Oliver is sold to an undertaker (Michael Heath) then escapes and flees to London where he is adopted by a malevolent Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and his group of street pickpockets. Fagin's sidekick, the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), teaches him the tricks of the trade. A witnessing of the real business at hand mistakenly lands him in the home of the rich Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke). Later, things get more troublesome as Fagin and his wicked boss Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman) scheme to get Oliver back thinking that he will rat them out to the authorities.
Though Clark is amiably angelic or hardly overwrought he's not nearly as engaging as those around him. Most notably, Kingsley is a scene-stealer as the wretched rogue quickly losing sanity. But, like Oliver, he engenders our sympathy beneath his vicious facade. However, the Semitic part of the character is just hinted at. There's also a nice fulcrum between the upbeat Hardwicke and the despicable Foreman who slyly uses his eyes to create the unrelenting power of a great white shark.
Polanski infuses this time-worn tale with a child's perception that has some immediacy, at least for himself, given his real-life separation during the Holocaust. The realism affecting orphans, the poor and women has relevance to contemporary society, though never too intrusive.
This Oliver Twist stands out with some impeccable recreations of the time from slums, markets, and docks from the work of production designer Allan Starski. One observes the visual elements that depict the transition between the idyllic and the industrialization of England. Maybe, Polanski doesn't make it as darkly captivating as he could have because of who takes center stage, but there's something proper and ironic within the wit and harsh realities of the events and the infamous line, "Sir, may I have another."