At the end of a good year, I will have read three books. This has nothing to do with any sort of laziness or lack of literary enjoyment; this is simply my quota. When I do read, however, I tend to try to read what one would consider modern classics. On this reasoning, I’ve read a scant number of what most people consider ‘classic’ novels. However, of the few I have read, one of them happens to be Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. So, I am coming into Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist locked and loaded with the book and David Lean’s wonderful 1948 version on my mind.
Let’s get the story out of the way for those few who haven’t heard it. Sweet, young Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is cast out of his orphanage when he is picked to ask the cook for more porridge and is sent to work for a kind casket maker who is controlled by his wife. He escapes to London where he makes friends with a charming thief nicknamed The Artful Dodger (Harry Eden). As it happens, Dodger is part of a gang of thieving youths who work for the persuasive Fagin (Sir Ben Kingsley), a decrepit old man with too much hair and too few teeth. The storm really swells when Twist tries to go straight with a rich book collector named Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) and gets on the bad side of a few of Fagin’s friends and partners. The most nefarious of the partners is Billy Sykes (Jamie Foreman), a terribly mean thief who is followed around by an ugly dog named Bullseye. This all leads to a plot between Sykes and Fagin to kill poor little Oliver, but that proves to be pretty difficult.
Oliver Twist is a rarity, as far as Polanski films go, in that it is just an OK movie. Polanski tends to be a director who either soars to amazing heights (Chinatown, The Tenant) or sinks to depths never imagined (The Ninth Gate, Bitter Moon). With Oliver Twist, you can feel that Polanski really didn’t take any risks with a story that could really use some. It is a well known fact that nearly every production of Oliver Twist has looked the same and pretty much sounded the same. One would hope that Polanski’s ability to look into the dark corners of the mind would bring something new to the table, but it simply doesn’t. Instead of feeling like a Polanski film, it feels like anybody’s film. Even worse, writer Ronald Harwood, who wrote Polanski’s fantastic The Pianist, does nothing to bring out something fresh from Dickens’ feelings on crime and social structure.
What makes the film watchable is the acting. Ben Kingsley has a long history of being the best part of most of the films he is in, and Oliver Twist is no exception. Kingsley crawls into the dusty jacket of Fagin and builds him from the inside, bringing out the ways he uses kindness and manipulation as ploys to get what he wants. Along with Kingsley, Harry Eden shows great talent as The Artful Dodger, staging all his pick ups and petty thievery with an unshakeable charm. Unfortunately, Barney Clark follows Polanski’s lead and does nothing with the character besides playing him directly as an innocent, loveable little lad. There is no reason to call the film bad, because it simply isn’t. Instead, it is a film that has no reason and asks no questions. I rarely say this but, seriously, I wish I had just stayed home and read a book. Regrettably, I’ve already read three this year.
The DVD includes three making-of featurettes.
Please sir, may I have some less?