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Oliver Twist Review

By Shawn McKenzie 12/30/2005

When I heard that Roman Polanski’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2002 effort The Pianist was yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist…I was puzzled.  Why…when it’s already been adapted on screen and on TV several times before…would Polanski do it again?  I then found out that he wanted to make it because the story paralleled his own story growing up in a Nazi concentration camp.  While I think that the scrappy orphan’s tale is a big stretch to be compared to the filmmaker’s tale, I guess he had his reasons.  As for this umpteenth version…it was okay, but the story never resonated with me in the first place.

Sometime in the 19th century England (the book says that the story takes place in 1797), Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is a 9-year-old orphan who has been put in a workhouse.  The building is run down, and he and his fellow orphans are underfed, while the grown-ups running the place are certainly not starving.  They think that he should be grateful for the shelter and any food at all.  One day, his fellow orphans draw straws to pick who will ask the Workhouse Master (Andy de la Tour) for some more gruel…just to see what will happen.  Oliver picks the short straw, and during the next mealtime, he goes to the Workhouse Master and asks for some more.  The workhouse’s beadle, Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift), thinks that he is a troublemaker, so he advertises that he will sell the boy to anyone for five pounds.  He almost sells Oliver to a chimneysweep named Mr. Garmfield (Andy Linden), but Oliver pleads with the judge to not allow Garmfield to adopt him (he would have to do hard labor for the chimneysweep.)  Bumble soon sends him to live and work for an undertaker named Mr. Sowerberry (Michael Heath), making coffins.  Mrs. Sowerberry (Gillian Hanna) treats him awful, feeding him dog scraps and making him sleep on the wooden floor under a desk.  An older boy living with the Sowerberrys named Noah Claypole (Chris Overton) teases Oliver about his dead mother.  When Oliver defends his mother’s honor, he is given a beating and is locked up in a coal-storage cellar.  Once he is let out, the servants cane him.  Later that night, Oliver runs away 70 miles away to London, hoping to find someone who might treat him better.  He barely makes it there, when a boy named Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) spots him.  Dodger asks him if he would like some food and shelter, and when Oliver weakly says yes, Dodger gives him some food that he stole along the way and leads him to a room filled with boys and a crusty-looking man named Fagin (Ben Kingsley.)  It turns out that the boys are a bunch of pickpockets and thieves, and they give all of their booty to their leader Fagin.  He trains Oliver in the craft of pickpocketing, and soon Oliver is ready to go at it with real people.  Dodger and another pickpocket boy named Charley Bates (Lewis Chase) take Oliver out to show him how they do their thing.  Dodger steals from the pocket of a proper gentleman bookstore owner named Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), but a person witnesses the act, and the boys run.  Even though he didn’t realize what pickpocketing really involved, Oliver is arrested and is taken before Magistrate Fang (Alun Armstrong.)  Oliver is almost sentenced to three months of hard labor, when another witness comes foreword and says that the boy who did the crime was not Oliver.  Brownlow takes Oliver in and is treated well by him and his housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin (Frances Cuka.)  They both end up treating him like a son for the first time in his life.  Meanwhile, Fagin and his criminal colleague Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman) think that Oliver will betray them and bring the cops to them.  Sykes forces his girlfriend, Nancy (Leanne Rowe), to pretend to be Oliver’s sister in order to find out where he has been staying.  Sykes and his criminal partner Toby Crackit (Mark Strong) make a plan to kidnap him and bring him back to their lair.  Brownlow decides to test Oliver’s honesty by having the boy go on an errand to pay a local merchant five pounds and to return some books.  Brownlow’s friend Mr. Grimwig (Paul Brooke) doesn’t believe that Oliver will return, and when he doesn’t show up (Sykes and Nancy snatched him up along the way), Brownlow’s fears are confirmed.  Fagin tricks Oliver into describing the cool stuff in Brownlow’s place, and Sykes and Crackit force Oliver to come with them to rob the house.  Oliver is shot in the bungled robbery, and Crackit nurses him back to health.  Nancy feels guilty, so she arranges a meeting with Brownlow to let him in on the location of Oliver.  Tragedy happens, and Nancy’s friend Bet (Ophelia Lovibond) tells the police.  Oliver begins to wonder if he will ever find happiness in his life of being an orphan.

The most popular version onscreen of the story is the 1968 Oscar-winning musical Oliver!  During my research for this review, I’ve discovered that most other critics site the 1948 David Lean-directed version as the best adaptation.  While I’ve never seen that version (I have seen the 1968 one), I wonder if it was actually darker than Polanski’s take on it.  For me, Polanski made it plenty dark…but maybe that’s because I’ve never read the book and the only version I have to base it on is the cheery happy musical.  It certainly earned its PG-13 rating, because the violence in it would not qualify it as a “family” film.

Polanski choose to cast the movie with relative unknowns.  Kingsley is probably the most recognizable face in the movie…and because of that, he is also the best actor in it.  Twelve-year-old Clark does a decent job playing the title character…much more than the actors playing Dodger, Sykes, Nancy, and Crackit.

Oliver Twist was a little more interesting to me than the musical version, because it supposedly stayed true to its source material and was a little more adult than that version (which was the way that Dickens had intended it to be.)  I did start to get a little bored by the end, and I wished that it was a little shorter (it clocked in at about two hours and ten minutes.)  So far, the movie hasn’t gotten any award lovin’, but not everything Polanski touches turns to award gold.  This was obviously a personal tale and not intended to go after awards…so sir, I hope that we will see some more from you soon.

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