Oliver Twist (2005)


  The works of Charles Dickens seemingly hold great appeal to filmmakers. Every couple of years or so,
there seems to be a new version of one of his classic books, whether it be
A CHRISTMAS CAROL,
NICHOLAS NICKELBY or DAVID COPPERFIELD. The author’s works have been the basis for feature
films, stage musicals and television movies and miniseries. One of his most enduring tales is that of
OLIVER TWIST, which arrives in theaters courtesy of screenwriter Ronald Harwood and director Roman
Polanski, who last collaborated on the award-winning
THE PIANIST.

  Now, as I mentioned, there have been many permutations of the tale of young Oliver and his compatriots,
ranging from David Lean’s masterful 1948 film version to the 1960 stage musical
OLIVER! (adapted into a 1968
Oscar-winning film) to a 1988 Disney cartoon (
OLIVER & COMPANY) to a live-action 1997 Disney
television movie. The most recent straightforward version, a three-part miniseries, was made in 1999 and aired
in the United States on PBS’
“Masterpiece Theatre.” In 2002, a loose adaptation set in Toronto and focusing
on gay hustlers called
TWIST briefly hit theaters. Whether the time is ripe for another remake of a classic
may be questionable. Certainly, this year at the box office, there have been several films that have tackled
previously filmed material with uneven artistic results (e.g.,
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY,
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS
).

  Harwood’s screenplay captures the basics of the plot in a somewhat rote fashion: Oliver asks for more
gruel. Check. Oliver runs away to London and encounters the Artful Dodger. Check. Well, you get the point.
In adapting a literary piece for the screen, there are times where one can be too faithful to the source material.
(Just ask Steve Kloves and Chris Columbus about Harry Potter.) Harwood's screenplay adheres closely
-- perhaps too closely -- to Dickens' novel.

  Still, Polanski is a master craftsman and the meticulous production design of Allan Starski, the exquisite
camerawork of cinematographer Pawel Edelman, the costumes of Anna Sheppard, and the editing of Herve
de Luze help make the film a visual treat. The score by Rachel Portman is at times quite appropriate, while
at other moments, grossly manipulative and overbearing.  

  Except for the exemplary Ben Kingsley, who is almost unrecognizable as Fagin, Polanski has opted
to cast the film with character players who are not immediately recognizable. By eschewing the casting of high
profile actors, he accomplishes something very important: the audience is drawn into the storytelling. A few, like
character players Liz Smith and Alun Armstrong, have actually appeared in previous adaptations of this classic,
and their faces may be known to the cognoscenti of British cinema and television, but Jamie Forman as the
sinister Bill Sykes, Leanne Rowe as the feisty Nancy, and young Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger were new
to me and each impressed in his or her own manner.

  At the center of the film is the angelic-looking Barney Clark as Oliver. At first, Clark seems to be too
inert but gradually he grows into the character. Take any scene between him and Kingsley’s Fagin: I was locked
onto Clark’s reactions and not paying attention to Kingsley. Any child performer who can upstage an Oscar
winning actor is clearly one to watch.

  Polanski has said he was drawn to this tale because of the Dickensian cast of his own childhood that saw
him ripped apart from his family by the Holocaust. Those experience imbued
THE PIANIST with a gravity and
verisimilitude that elevated that motion picture to the rank of masterpiece. Here Polanski doesn’t quite reach the
same heights, but he nevertheless delivers an enjoyable adaptation of classic literature.


                  Rating:                                B-
                  MPAA Rating:                    PG-13 for disturbing images
                  Running time:                      130 mins.



                                                  Viewed at the SONY Screening Room        
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.