Here is an impressive new version of the classic tale about the orphan boy who "asked for more" in a gruesome orphanage, later flees to London and meets up with the sinister Fagin who runs a gang of child pickpockets lead by The Artful Dodger. The plot thickens when Oliver is rescued short term by a kindly Mr. Brownlow but is later kidnapped by the evil Bill Sikes, in collaboration with Fagin, and forced to rob his benefactor. Dickens exemplifies the harsh conditions that children of the poor experienced in the times of Queen Victoria.
The great difficulty in adapting Charles Dickens to the screen is the length of his novels and the complex plots and many characters therein. Much of the Dickens droll humour which lightens his grim stories is in the written word, and often lost in translation to film.
So Roman Polanski, that brilliant if sometimes quirky director, has done a truly remarkable job with his Oliver Twist. Controversial Polanski once the boy wonder of the Polish Film Industry, with the film Knife in the Water, later Rosemary's Baby, up to his recent The Pianist, occasionally takes to the classics. Previously he's done a noteworthy versions of Tess and Macbeth. He seems totally at home with Victorian England, staging the most gothic looking London since The Elephant Man. He has succeeded in creating a detailed, often grotty and dismal environment that has an authentic ring.
Polanski's new version must seriously compare with David Lean's 1948 landmark film, and others including Carol Reed's "Oliver" the Musical. He faithfully brings the novel to the screen in this lengthy version, (nearly 30 minutes longer than Lean's) including scenes that were omitted previously. His Oliver as played by Barney Clarke is less precious than John Howard Davies, and gets down and dirty, while Ben Kingsley heavily made-up is a Fagin to compete with the great Alec Guinness. If perhaps the malevolent Bill Sikes played by Jamie Foreman doesn't quite live up to the legendary Robert Newton, or the overwhelming Oliver Reed he certainly brings a degree of smoldering brutality to the role.
It is some 35 years since a feature length Oliver Twist has been filmed, so new a generation may be introduced to Dickens through this new picture. When Lean's Great Expectations played at the Regent Cinema in Melbourne back in the late forties, it was huge, people queued in the streets to get tickets. I'm not sure that there is the same interest today in Dickens especially with younger people. And one may wonder why Polanski didn't try one of the less popular novels, like Our Mutual Friend, or perhaps Bleak House which have not been made into feature films. A pity because he could have done them proud. But given that, his Oliver Twist is very worthy indeed.