Oliver Twist is a well known Charles Dickens tale which has enjoyed several screen adaptations. This is the story of a young orphan struggling to survive amongst thieves in Victorian London. This time Polanski is the man at the helm and he brings this dark story beautifully to life while remaining faithful to the original book.
The film opens on Mr Bumble as he drags Oliver through the streets to deposit him at the local work house. This Victorian institution is where the destitute end up, forced to work for a bed in a dormitory and a bowl of gruel. Oliver comes to the attention of the board after he dares to ask for more gruel and they decide to get rid of him, offering £5 to any tradesman who´ll take him off their hands. After a short and unpleasant stint with the local undertaker Oliver decides to run away and find his fortune in London.
In the bustling and grubby metropolis Oliver is befriended by the Artful Dodger, a lad not much older than himself who has learned to carve a living from the mean streets. Under the tutelage of the corrupt and wizened Fagin, Oliver learns to graft but it soon becomes clear that he is not cut out for a life of crime and he falls foul of Bill Sykes an especially bad-tempered hoodlum who works with Fagin. A potential saviour appears in the form of Mr Brownlow and the battle for Oliver´s future begins.
The film is beautifully directed by Polanski as he lovingly reconstructs Victorian England with some splendid settings. There is a great deal of attention to detail and the costumes and backdrops are perfect. The grubby underworld of London is contrasted sharply with the wealth and prosperity and the shocking class divide is painfully apparent.
The plot is familiar but very well explained here and Polanski remains faithful to Dickens book. All of the familiar scenes are here and a few more besides and the story is told in a straightforward fashion thankfully without resorting to song. This is a sprawling tale and Polanski takes over two hours to tell it, giving the various threads the attention they deserve. The overall mood is unremittingly bleak as Polanski creates an unemotional world which highlights the abject cruelty and coldness of Victorian society.
The acting is excellent and refreshingly subtle without recourse to caricature too much, with the possible exception of Fagin played by Ben Kingsley. He is constantly bent-double, incredibly crooked and has a high-pitched rather creepy voice but the character merits it and his acting of the ultimate scene was very memorable. The rest of the cast are all good choices, Barney Clark does a good job as Oliver, Leanne Rowe is spot on as Nancy, I liked Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger and London hard man Jamie Foreman was perfect as Bill Sykes.
The high production values are apparent from the opening shot to the closing one. This film is full of beautiful cinematography and the settings feel authentic and gritty. The pace is fairly brusque to begin with but does drag in places and perhaps partly because the subject matter is so familiar it never puts you on the edge of your seat, which isn´t to say that there is no tension, simply that knowing the outcome doesn´t help.
Oliver Twist is a classic of literature and the tale deserves to be retold to new generations. The fascinating drudgery and cruelty of Victorian life and morals are put on trial here and the class divide is explored through the bizarre mixture of characters. This may be the best film version of the book made to date, a great introduction to this Dickens classic for those unfamiliar with it and yet still enjoyable for audiences of all the previous incarnations.