Oliver Twist

© 2005 Ray Wong

Stars: Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Leanne Rowe, Mark Strong, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, Edward Hardwicke
Roman Polanski
Ronald Harwood (based on novel by Charles Dickens)
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 for disturbing images
Running time:
130 minutes

Script – 7
Performance – 7
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 9

Total Score – 7.0 out of 10

One must ask, how many times can we remake the classic tale of Oliver Twist? Granted, it’s a wonderful, timeless story by one of the best storytellers of all times, and the name Polanski also means certain quality (or promise) that naturally pulls me into the theater. So I’m willing to give this film a chance.

We all know the story. Oliver Twist (Clark) is an orphan. The now infamous “please sir, may I have some more” line gets him into a whole lot of troubles, and changes his life. Sold to a coffin-maker, Oliver defies the poor treatments he receives and escapes to London, where he meets a young vagabond named Artful Dodger (Eden). Seeing that Oliver needs a place to stay, Dodger sends him to his boss/mentor Fagin (Kingsley). An old thief ready for his retirement, Fagin teaches the boys how to pick pocket and steal. He takes a special liking to Oliver. There, Oliver meets the kind Nancy (Rowe) and her gruff burglar boyfriend, Sykes (Foreman).

During a mishap at the marketplace, Oliver is arrested and taken to the magistrate office for steeling a handkerchief from Mr. Brownlow (Hardwicke). Upon learning of Oliver’s innocence, Brownlow takes him in. Fearing that the boy would snitch on them, Sykes coerces Fagin and Nancy to kidnap Oliver and forces him to help burglarize Brownlow’s house. Nancy, remorseful for what she’s done to Oliver, tries to save him. But Sykes has another plan, one that would result in tragic ends for all of them…

Dickens’s classic tale is full of colorful and memorable characters. Heading the cast in this production is Kingsley (SUSPECT ZERO), who is barely recognizable as the derelict master thief. Kingsley disappears and becomes totally absorbed in the role. His Fagin is quite memorable. Clark (THE LAWLESS HEART) is fine as the titular character, a young boy whose fate makes us sigh with anguish. So, he is not as cute and sweet as Mark Lester in the 1968 OLIVER! (Kingsley also portrays Fagin differently than the enlightening Ron Moody in that production), but Clark’s portrayal is more resolute and determined, giving Oliver more edge and hero quality, instead of just a child in distress.

Rowe (BOUDICA) is adequate as Nancy, but she is no Shani Wallis, whose Nancy in OLIVER! was sensational. Same with Foreman (LAYER CAKE) as Sykes. Here, Foreman’s portrayal is rather lackluster, and his malevolence is merely a matter of story instead of character development. Again, in comparison, Oliver Reed made for a much more memorable Sykes in OLIVER!. Eden (PETER PAN) fares better as Artful Dodger – unfortunately, in this adaptation, Dodger doesn’t have much to do.

Harwood’s (BEING JULIA) script is more faithful to the original book than OLIVER! but it also makes the story so much darker and heavier, almost void of any humor. In comparison, OLIVER! was delightful and charming, even with its dark, serious third act. Perhaps that’s exactly what director Polanksi (THE PIANIST) wants. Dickens’s original tale was never cuddly and happy as the musical was. Oliver Twist is full of bad people, with bad intentions. Even with that understanding, this script feels long and dreary, dragging along in the second and third acts. In truth, the first act is this film’s best part.

However, I must give kudos to Polanski’s artistic vision. The production value of this film is remarkable. From the artful, scrumptious, painterly cinematography (by Pawel Edelman, RAY and THE PIANIST) to the costumes and sets and details, Polanski has succeeded in creating a world so real that it pulls us in immediately. We really could feel what it would be like to live in England during that time period. That and the timeless story and characters are what make this film worthy. If only Polanski had instilled some humor to lift the film from its deadly dark mood, this Oliver could have been more entertaining rather than simply depressing.

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