Oliver Twist

2006-07-17 16:23


Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is a destitute orphan in 19th Century England who is sent to the brutal workhouse at the tender age of 9. After committing the heinous crime of asking for more food, "trouble making" Oliver is shoved into an apprenticeship with the local undertaker. But his misery only increases as he is bullied and unjustly beaten. Unable to stand any more abuse, Oliver runs away to distant London, arriving in the capital half starved and bone weary. There he happens upon a charming vagabond called The Artful Dodger who offers him food and lodgings. Little does Oliver realise that he has fallen in with a desperate band of pickpockets in the keep of the sinister fence Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and the brutal robber Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman). Things seem to be going from bad to worse for little Oliver Twist...


Few people would expect Roman Polanski's version of Dickens' classic tale to be anything less than excellent. With nearly 50 years in the business and an Oscar to his name (for 2002's The Pianist), Polanski is widely recognised as one of the world's most accomplished directors. What's more he is working with largely the same crew that helped him craft his Oscar winner, including South African born screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who also received an Academy Award for The Pianist).

Why then is Oliver Twist so flat, functional and utterly uninspired? At least part of it can be put down to the elusive X factor that is so vital to every successful work of fiction. All projects, from high art to low comedy, are lost without that spark of vitality that catches in the mind of an audience and sets their imaginations ablaze.

The power of great authors like Dickens is that the spark that inhabits their work is not dimmed by time. People still read Oliver Twist for the first time today, over 150 years after it was written, and are enchanted by it's imaginative richness and visceral power. Though, on the surface, Dickens themes and subjects are outmoded, he speaks to something much deeper inside all of us.

And the rules are no different for films. On the surface The Pianist is yet another story of a Holocaust survivor - yet Polanski, Harwood and company made it into so much more. They made it something universal, an experience we could all grasp, and that touched all of us deeply.

In Oliver Twist, however, they have squashed Dickens' spark - flattened it beneath a scrupulously faithful and utterly lifeless facade. The film plods through the story, negotiating all the appropriate detours and bumps, but never raises one ounce of dramatic tension. Iconic scenes, like the death of Bill Sykes, that have thrilled the hearts and chilled the blood of millions of readers are here rendered flat, bland and perfunctory.

But why should this be so? It's certainly not from lack of effort or talent. The film is as gorgeously dressed and well shot an evocation of Victorian England as you could ever hope to see on film. The action is solidly portrayed by a cast of extremely capable actors, headed up by the great Ben Kingsley as Fagin. Never for one moment do you doubt that you are watching Dickens' story unfold - the surface of his tale is perfectly rendered.

And yet that's all it remains - a surface. In their pedantic attention to historically accurate detail, Polanski and his team seem to have lost track of the guts of the story they are telling. They present Dickens as reality, as dull and dreary history when Dickens himself presented his story as fable, as dark primordial myth.

Is it worth seeing? If you've never seen another version and want to learn the story without having to read the book - then yes. If you've ever seen another version - particularly the marvellous 1968 musical - then it will only be a disappointment.

- Alistair Fairweather

Roman Polanski's straight laced adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is as dry as dust, and just as interesting.

Fred 2005/12/08 3:12 PM
Oliver Twist with lemon Barry Wronge would disagree with you Alistair
Jimmy Lithgow 2005/12/14 5:20 AM
Mr. After the very indifferent reviews accorded to this film, worldwide, I was pleasantly surprised, finding it absorbing, ravishingly beautiful and often very funny. The many engaging supporing performances hover just this side of caricature and Ben Kingsley does a wonderful job with Fagin. Barney Clarke is a great improvement over the wimpish Mark Lester, the star of the musical version, in the title role, but Jamie Foreman lacks the stature to be truly menacing in the role of Bill Sykes. All in all, a film which greatly exceeded my expectations and which is worth seeing for its picture postcard beauty, if nothing else. Yes, unreservedly.
Jonathan Goslett 2005/12/20 2:04 PM
Oliver Twist A really excellent new version of one of Dickens' greatest stories. As usual, via his thorough research and realistic portrayals, Polanski has brought this classic to life. It's a typical example of the talent of Polanski, and has really been a worthwhile re-make. Those that give it a low rating are steeped in the unfortunate thoughtlessness of the modern movie trends. Well done to the producers, cast and crew of Oliver Twist. It's refreshing to think that there is still room for decent movies in this world. Very definitely
tanya 2006/01/02 6:19 PM
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