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Published October 7th, 2005 | by Michelle Thomas

Oliver Twist Review

There can’t be a person on the planet who doesn’t know the story of Oliver Twist (Clark), either through the many cinematic versions or from reading (shock horror!) the novel. But for those bought up in the Bizarro World, Oliver Twist is an orphan of peculiarly innocent mien. Bought up on the parish, and forced to work like a dog, he and his fellow orphans are kept on short commons. Starving, the boys draw straws, and Oliver loses – its his fate to ask the flint-faced warden for more gruel.

Crumbs! The workhouse authorities, tucking into their own luxurious meal, are appalled, and Oliver is rapidly sold off to an undertaker. Bullied and miserable, Oliver runs away to London, where he meets the Artful Dodger (Eden), who is on the lookout for new boys to join Fagin’s (Kinsgley) gang of pickpockets. Oliver is delighted to be warm and well fed, and happily and innocently begins to learn the art of petty theft. Arrested by mistake, he is adopted by kindly Mr Brownloe (Harwicke), but Fagin and his ‘associate’ Bill Sykes (Foreman) are worried that Oliver may reveal their whereabouts to the authorities, and are determined to get him back, or silence him forever…

It seems an odd choice for legendary director Polanski to make a new version of Oliver Twist. The film is polished, good-looking and accomplished, but still feels redundant. Perhaps its just that the story is so familiar, its hard to see what anyone could bring to the table.

Polanski’s star power has attracted a top-notch cast of British talent led by Ben Kingsley and the performances are uniformly good. Kingsley himself, unrecognisable in makeup, is hilarious as Fagin, and Harry Eden makes the part of pipe-smoking Dodger his own. As with the new Working Title production of Pride & Prejudice, the production is authentically filthy and smelly-looking. The lavish sets, built on the backlot in Prague, recreate five major streets and numerous market squares, including the slum where Bill Sykes tries to escape across the rooftops, the more suburban Pentonville where Mr Brownloe lives, and Kings Street, a west end shopping street. With 800 costumed extras, horses and carriages, Polanski succeeds in bringing Victorian London to vibrant life.

The language and accents also strive for authenticity. Oliver, raised in the Midlands, has a slight Birmingham accent, though his natural gentility is indicated by his manners. Fagin, Sykes and Dodger use much more Dickensian language and pepper their sentences with thieves’ cant. The children in the film live appalling lives; unless, by pure luck, a generous benefactor picks you out of the gutter, a working class orphan will end up in the workhouse or in a thieves’ den like Fagin’s where, in return for food, they steal and prostitute themselves, and the film doesn’t shy away from this reality. Nancy (Rowe) may be kind-hearted but she’s still a whore and a thief and she knows no other life. The authorities are cold and cruel and happy to turn a blind eye – to them these children are little better than animals.

The biggest problem in the film is Oliver himself. In the workhouse and at the undertakers’, Oliver has a certain spark but once he gets to London he seems to lose it and spends most of the film alternately weeping and fainting. Oliver becomes someone to whom things happen and his innate goodness and innocence palls when he’s surrounded by so many more vibrant and colourful characters. When Bill Sykes is trying to kill him, surely it would be natural for Oliver to fight back or run away, not just stand there like a lemon?

The decision by Polanski and scriptwriter Ronald Harwood to cut the subplot about Oliver’s mother seems wrong. Without it, Brownlow’s beneficience is for Oliver alone, and not because he is his grandson, and therefore it seems cruel that he doesn’t offer to take in any other children. Its also disappointing that Fagin ends in prison – he might belong there but the memory of Dodger and Fagin skipping off into the sunset in Oliver! is so much more satisfactory.

A new Oliver for a new generation? Maybe. But I miss the songs.

Interview: What the Dickens!

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