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Oliver Twist

Roman Polanskiís new adaptation of the famous Dickens novel is technically accomplished and well acted, but never really lives up to its promise.

Roman Polanskiís new adaptation of the famous Dickens novel is technically accomplished and well acted, but never really lives up to its promise.

Every so often a film comes along in which there is much to admire but ultimately leaves you feeling unsatisfied. Polanskiís new version of Oliver Twist is just such a film. Despite the impressive production design, some solid performances and a gritty evocation of the Victorian era the film left me feeling like young Oliver in wanting more. After their Oscar wins for The Pianist, it seems odd that Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood would choose to make such a conventional adaptation of an already famous work.

If you arenít familiar with the novel it concerns an orphan named Oliver (here played by Barney Clarke) who runs away from his workhouse to London. There he ends up running with a gang of thieves led by Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman). After a robbery goes wrong, he is separated from the gang and taken into the home of the rich Mr Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) but soon Sykes and Fagin conspire to get him back. Billís kindly girlfriend Nancy (Leanne Rowe) tells Brownlow of the plot and soon Oliver is caught up in a dangerous tug of war.

Aside from Allan Starskiís excellent production design, the aspect of this adaptation that immediately stands out is Ben Kingsleyís portrayal of Fagin. Closer in tone to Dickensí original characterisation, he makes him a much substantial figure than the comic creation in Carol Reedís 1968 musical. Jamie Forman is also suitably menacing as Bill Sykes and Leanne Rowe is a sympathetic Nancy. Itís a shame that Barney Clarke in the title role often seems out of his depth, as do the gang of thieves under Fagin. But despite the quality of most of the acting on display the film lacks the class and spark that have informed the directorís previous literary adaptations such as Macbeth (1971) and Tess (1979).

Furthermore, given that his last film was a moving and compelling adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilmanís memoir The Pianist, it seems odd that this film fails to capture the imagination. That film managed to overcome its familiar World War Two setting in order to create a harrowing and riveting portrayal of one man trying to survive alone in the Warsaw ghetto. Despite the potential here to craft a similar type of film (Oliver is also a survivor in a harsh environment) it never rises above the conventions of the genre. Polanski has said that he wanted to make a film his children could see and on that level the film is agreeable. But given his obvious talent, as well as the quality of his recent work, it is only natural to expect more.

MORE DETAIL

> Official Site
> IMDb Link
> Watch the trailer
> The Observer interview Polanski – A lengthy and interesting interview that covers Oliver Twist and the recent Vanity Fair trial
> Polanski’s official site (in French)
> Guardian profile of Polanski
> BFI feature on Polanski
> Polanski fansite – – With archived interviews and image galleries.
> Wikipedia entry on Polanski

By Ambrose Heron

Editor of FILMdetail