Movie Review by Dan Spiers
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, Leanne Rowe
Director: Roman Polanski
Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was last filmed in 1968 and Carol Read’s musical Oliver! proved so successful that it still seems familiar today. Naturally this has a great deal to do with the lasting popularity of the novel, but still, mere mention of the name conjures images of hordes of urchins singing ‘Food glorious food, hot sausage and mustard’, and Oliver himself stumbling around like Bambi, wide eyed and innocent, from one avaricious adult to another.
Roman Polanski’s version has dispensed with the saccharine songs and drawn upon the social conscience of the novel. In particular his interpretation of Oliver as a boy with balls highlights the fact any child surviving the poverty and depravity of 19 th century England was a youth of worth indeed.
When Oliver (Barney Clark) draws the short straw and is forced to ask for more food at his workhouse home he is labelled as a trouble maker. Wary of a boy with gumption the Beadle, Mr Bumble (Jeremy Swift), attempts to palm him off to a chimney sweep and when this fails he is apprenticed to a local undertaker.
But Oliver’s stay is short and after fighting with another of the apprentices and being severely beaten he escapes to London. Bloodied and homeless he is befriended by a charismatic pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), and taken to the leader of his gang, an old peculiarity named Fagin (Sir Ben Kingsley).
Fagin sees profit in the angelic face of the orphan and gives him food and lodging whilst training him to be a thief. But it is when Oliver is arrested on his first job and the safety of the gang is brought into question that his troubles truly begin.
For Fagin and his partner, the murderous Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman) will do anything to protect their operation and as they begin to realise Oliver’s alarmingly honest disposition, his death becomes inevitable.
Throughout the adventure, Polanski’s love for Dickens is clear. Visually, there is a powerful sense of time and place, with the dank, deathly drudgery of the workhouse, the dizzying chaos of London streets and squalor of the docks all evocative and affecting.
The camera supports Oliver throughout, viewing the world from his perspective. Buildings loom above him, traffic thunders past him, whilst all around sights and sounds prove alien and alienating.
Thankfully Polanski also reacquaints us with an array of larger than life characters, Fangs and Bumbles, Crackits and Claypoles, realised with passion by fantastic actors.
Sir Ben Kingsley, in particular, is outstanding. Fagin displays the multiple personalities of a man in the grip of schizophrenia. At one moment a figure of fun, extracting silk handkerchiefs from where he shouldn’t, the next a cantankerous old miser planning the murder of an innocent child and finally a dishevelled wreck veering violently from one personality to the other.
Above all, Oliver Twist is a great story, and from beginning to end this adaptation is a magical journey bursting with the colourful majesty of the Dickensian world. It manages to flirt with the fantastical whilst retaining a place in 19th century reality and proving an able critique of the world we live in today. Unlike Oliver! it does not have songs, but it does have an awful lot of Dickens, Dickens pure and simple, and is all the better for it.