As a novel, ‘Oliver Twist’ is episodic and often sentimental, especially in its wish-fulfilment ending – all too easy to serve up as saccharine ‘family-friendly’ stuff. What’s most impressive about Roman Polanski’s new adaptation is that it retains the book’s emotional punch and darker elements – the spectre of the gallows is a running motif – and presents them in a way likely to engage younger viewers without patronising them. From realist flourishes (the deterioration of Oliver’s feet as he hikes to London) to witty contrasts (the workhouse master spitting out a mouthful of food when Oliver asks for more), it’s a film that does its emotional work through bold, resonant image-making.Tracing the young orphan’s progress from workhouse to the East End slum where he falls in with Fagin, the Artful Dodger et al, Ronald Harwood’s adaptation is an efficient trim-job, initially picaresque then streamlining the narrative (and excising the fairytale genealogy). Visually the film takes its cue from the George Cruikshank caricatures and Gustave Doré engravings associated with the novel, offering a heightened, picture-book feel. Varnished but still grubby, its backstreets are ripe with squalor, its impeccably cast villains no less menacing for being faintly clownlike: Mark Strong shines briefly as toothy, flame-haired dandy Crackit and Jamie Foreman makes a suitably snarly Sykes. But clownlike need not be pantomimic, as Ben Kingsley’s centrepiece turn as Fagin demonstrates. Jocular ringmaster and exploitative arch-opportunist, he’s never sympathetic but always compulsively watchable – especially when at his literal wit’s end in the climactic jailhouse reunion with Barney Clark’s Oliver. It’s a truly pitiable scene that makes clearer the film’s connection to Polanski’s earlier work. As in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Chinatown’, ‘The Pianist’ and others, Polanski presents a threatening, rotten world as viewed through the eyes of a vulnerable innocent; he tackles jealousy, suspicion and corruption as surely in storybook mode as through suspense, investigation or horror.
Friday October 7 2005
Cast and crew
Barney Clark Edward Hardwicke Jamie Foreman Leanne Rowe Ben Kingsley Mark Strong Harry Eden Ian McNeice