Little orphan Oliver’s celebrated appeal, “Please sir, I want some more...” sets him on his gullible journey, but it’s unlikely to echo modern-day audiences’ attitude towards yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel. Umpteen versions already exist, spun up for telly, stage and screen, including a Disney talking-dogs cartoon (Oliver And Company) and Carol Reed’s brilliant, pithy 1968 musical. And why not? It’s a superb tale, weaving in tragedy, comedy, adventure and heartwarming elation. Still, you can’t help but feel that if we’re going to get another Twist, it needs to be a little bit special – particularly as it’s directed by one of the world’s pre-eminent filmmakers, with his first movie since Best Director Oscar-winning The Pianist. But the question that springs to mind watching Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist remains, simply, “Why?”
The septuagenarian Parisian wanted to make a film his two young kids could watch (perhaps so they can be spared Bitter Moon) so he errs firmly on the side of caution, serving a faithfully executed interpretation. As far as that goes, he’s delivered a meticulous film blessed with the superlative production values a lavish $60 million budget buys: attractive lighting, magnificent costumes and sets that capture the teeming squalor of Dickensian London.
But populating this realistic world are a few less-than-definitive performances. Oliver (Clark) is suitably doe-eyed and timid, but his performance is best described as peripheral, while you have to feel sorry for Foreman, who’s absolutely fine as Sykes but can’t dislodge the etched-on-the-brain memory of Oliver Reed’s defining thug. Kingsley’s Fagin is Polanski’s one standout, virtually unrecognisable as the hunchbacked, hook-nosed, money-grubbing (mmm, smell the novel’s anti-Semitism) thief-boss, although Polanski tones down his exploitative tyranny to make him more of a pathetic clown.
We know it’s for kids, Roman, but surely even they could have handled Dickens’ darker, more sinister shadings.