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Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist

Total Film

October 2005

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Director Roman Polanski
Starring Barney Clark, Jeremy Swift, Ian McNeice
Cert PG

Rating **

From harsh country workhouse to London slums, hapless orphan Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) stumbles upon adventure, misfortune and sporadic acts of kindness in 1830s England. He also comes into the treacherous orbit of Fagin (Ben Kingsley), the decrepit boss of a rumpled gang of boy pickpockets, and his brutish cohort Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman).

Little orphan Oliver’s celebrated appeal, “Please sir, I want some more...” sets him on his gullible journey, but it’s unlikely to echo modern-day audiences’ attitude towards yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel. Umpteen versions already exist, spun up for telly, stage and screen, including a Disney talking-dogs cartoon (Oliver And Company) and Carol Reed’s brilliant, pithy 1968 musical. And why not? It’s a superb tale, weaving in tragedy, comedy, adventure and heartwarming elation. Still, you can’t help but feel that if we’re going to get another Twist, it needs to be a little bit special – particularly as it’s directed by one of the world’s pre-eminent filmmakers, with his first movie since Best Director Oscar-winning The Pianist. But the question that springs to mind watching Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist remains, simply, “Why?”

The septuagenarian Parisian wanted to make a film his two young kids could watch (perhaps so they can be spared Bitter Moon) so he errs firmly on the side of caution, serving a faithfully executed interpretation. As far as that goes, he’s delivered a meticulous film blessed with the superlative production values a lavish $60 million budget buys: attractive lighting, magnificent costumes and sets that capture the teeming squalor of Dickensian London.

But populating this realistic world are a few less-than-definitive performances. Oliver (Clark) is suitably doe-eyed and timid, but his performance is best described as peripheral, while you have to feel sorry for Foreman, who’s absolutely fine as Sykes but can’t dislodge the etched-on-the-brain memory of Oliver Reed’s defining thug. Kingsley’s Fagin is Polanski’s one standout, virtually unrecognisable as the hunchbacked, hook-nosed, money-grubbing (mmm, smell the novel’s anti-Semitism) thief-boss, although Polanski tones down his exploitative tyranny to make him more of a pathetic clown.

We know it’s for kids, Roman, but surely even they could have handled Dickens’ darker, more sinister shadings.

Roman Polanski thinks that his solid, slavishly faithful Dickens adaptation is primed to pick a pocket or two, but did the world really need another Oliver Twist?

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