Roman Polanski directs the classic Charles Dickens story of a young orphan boy who gets involved with a gang of pickpockets in 19th Century London. Abandoned at an early age, Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is forced to live in a workhouse lorded over by the awful Mr. Bumble, who cheats the boys of their meager rations. Desperate yet determined, Oliver makes his escape to the streets of London. Penniless and alone, he is lured into a world of crime by the sinister Fagin (Academy-Award® winner Sir Ben Kingsley) -- the mastermind of a gang of pint-sized pickpockets. Oliver's rescue by the kindly Mr. Brownlow is only the beginning of a series of adventures that lead him to the promise of a better life.
If Charles Dickens were alive to see Roman Polanski's faithful adaptation of Oliver Twist
, he'd probably give it his stamp of approval. David Lean's celebrated 1948 version of the Dickens classic and Carol Reed's Oscar®-winning 1968 musical are more entertaining in some ways, but Polanski's rendition is both painstakingly authentic (with superb cinematography and production design) and deeply rooted in the emotional context of the story. Both Polanski and Dickens had personal experiences similar to those of young Oliver (played here by Barney Clark) -- Polanski in the Nazi-occupied ghettos of Poland during World War II, and Dickens during his hard-scrabble youth in Victorian London -- and this spiritual kinship lends a certain gravitas
to the tale of a tenacious orphan who escaped from indentured servitude in London society and is taken in by Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and his streetwise gang of pickpockets. As the evil Bill Sykes, who exploits Oliver for his own nefarious needs, Jamie Foreman is no match for Oliver Reed (in the '68 musical) in terms of frightening menace, but even here, Polanski's direction hews closer to Dickens, while the screenplay by Ronald Harwood (who also wrote Polanski's The Pianist
) necessarily trims away subplots and characters for the sake of narrative economy. All in all, this Oliver Twist
rises above most previous versions, and with the benefit of Kingsley's nuanced performance, Polanski arrives at a compassionate conclusion that captures the essence of Dickens' novel in a way that viewers of all ages will appreciate for many years to come. --Jeff Shannon