Little Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) stands up after finishing his bowl of gruel, meekly approaches the grumpy dining supervisor, and asks timidly, "Please, sir, I want some more." Only the opening line of "A Tale of Two Cities" is more recognizable in the world of Charles Dickens, but it is this line that reminds us of a character's inherent innocence, and how he is doomed to live a childhood of cruel inferiority.
Dickens' Oliver Twist has endured several film adaptations. One was a musical, another was an animated Disney feature, but none of them can hold a candle to Roman Polanski's masterstroke version. Either this is the purest and most timeless Dickens tale or Polanski is one of the greatest directors of our time, and, in case you want to know my opinion, I believe both to be true. With Oliver Twist, Dickens discovered his true writing style, creating a boy hero stuck in a world of detailed and colorful characters. In the film, Polanski paints a beautiful portrait of the world that Oliver inhabits, and it is undoubtedly the world that Dickens had in mind.
Its no secret that Dickens is one of the most talked about authors of literature. He himself grew up on the brink of poverty. One can logically conclude that he was mistreated by grown-ups, and one can also logically conclude that he developed a hatred for the upper-class. In most of his stories, the heroes, usually children, are abused and mistreated by snobbish, ignorant adults, and most of these adults are very wealthy; even Tiny Tim was inevitably at the mercy of Scrooge's stinginess. I think that Oliver Twist is the character that Dickens most identified with. The fact that he is one of the great heroes of literature gives the film a good reason to be of the highest order, because without a character that we can have sympathy for, a film is destined to fall dead in the water.
But since the book is such an immortal classic, Polanski's vision is destined to be, as well. The screenplay is disposable, I think; its transferring the screenplay to the screen that's the trick. We are given the story of a pitiful orphan boy who is struggling to survive at a time in which children are horrifically treated. He sees the world with his young eyes, and it is a world of vivid characters who are either his friends or enemies. Pretty much the only people who are kind to Oliver are those who break the law.
That would be Fagin (an unrecognizable Ben Kingsley), a grotesque but kind-hearted old man who runs a gang of young pickpockets. Oliver meets him through the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) upon arriving in London, and begins to learn the tricks of stealing. After developing a bond with the boys, and the beautiful Nancy (Leanne Rowe), Oliver becomes caught in misunderstanding that sets off a chain reaction plot.
A pickpocketing goes awry and Oliver is arrested but pardoned by the man who was robbed, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), the only wealthy man in the story that Dickens doesn't antagonize. He takes Oliver into his home, treats him with proper medical care and every luxury that he desires, and offers to give Oliver a proper education. But there is a dark shadow surrounding the boy hero, for the evil Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman), is out to use the boy as a pawn in a crime that eventually threatens Oliver's life.
Morality is an issue that Dickens so often explored, and both the book and the film solemnly argue that Fagin and his thieves are struggling for survival. 1850s London was a time in which the poor were treated unfairly by the government and the wealthy. So stealing food and money is necessary for Fagin and the boys. But is it still a crime or is it a justified way of life?
"Oliver Twist" brings this concept to life in an array of brilliance. There are many things about the film that are wonderful--the screenplay, the performances--but the film's ultimate triumph is offering a vision much like the one we materialize in our imaginations when we read the book. The characters are on display for the purposes of dragging the story along, but instead they carry it, and they are all played by actors and actresses who hit all the right notes. Barney Clark is the perfect Oliver. Ben Kingsley is a delightful Fagin, who is eventually exploited as a good man on the verge of becoming evil. Jamie Foreman is easily the scariest and most sinister Bill Sykes ever, and he seems to present an additional cruelty that Dickens did not create.
Everything about the film is display and conformation. We can imagine Charles Dickens falling in love the characters he created and concluding that these are those characters. In a year in which the Star Wars series has ended in a blaze of perfection, and when cinematic mediocrities can snatch six bucks from your wallet, here is a graceful movie that has a passion for its source material and never, not for a moment, loses an ounce of its potential greatness. What an extraordinary film. - Isaac
Rated PG-13; 130 minutes; Directed by Roman Polanski