United Kingdom/Czech Republic/France/Italy, 2005
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Violence, Mature Themes)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Barney Clark, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, Edward Hardwicke, Leanne Rowe
Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
You know there's a problem when the most interesting character in a film called Oliver Twist is a supporting woman named Nancy. Technically sound and surprisingly faithful to its source material, Roman Polanski's version of Oliver Twist comes across as uninspired and flat. Only two performances - that of Leanne Rowe as Nancy Sikes and Jamie Foreman as Bill Sikes - have energy. The biggest deficiency is Barney Clark, whose performance as the title character vacillates between befuddlement and artificial weepiness (rarely have I seen more crocodile tears). For the story to work, sympathy with Oliver is mandatory, but Clark's acting and Polanski's direction keep the character at arm's length. I cared about Nancy and wanted Bill to get his comeuppance, but Oliver seems inconsequential.
At its heart, Oliver Twist is a story of misery relieved by the occasional expression of kindness. Its one of the novels that feeds into the term "Dickensian." Oliver's life is tragic. He begins the story at an orphanage, but is soon kicked out for bad behavior. His next stop is working for a coffin-maker, but mistreatment causes him to run away. After a cruel, seven-day trek to London, he meets Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) and becomes one of the merry band of thieves ruled by the avaricious Fagin (Ben Kingsley). A chance encounter with a wealthy businessman, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), gives Oliver a chance at a better life, but Fagin and his cutthroat associate, Bill Sikes, are unwilling to let him move on. They find a way to pull him back in and use Mr. Brownlow's affection for Oliver to their advantage. Only Nancy, Bill's wife, shows compassion for poor Oliver.
Polanski's interpretation is very much a Masterpiece Theater style adaptation. It looks good and hits all the high points, but is cool and unemotional. Dickens was an excellent writer of melodrama. Tears while reading his books are common. But not so with this version of Oliver Twist. And, while there is humor in the book and humor in the movie, the two don't always occur in the same places. There are times when Oliver Twist is unintentionally farcical, which is a bad thing. It shatters the tone. But the period detail is impeccable (or at least so it seems to an untrained eye).
As I mentioned, the acting standouts are Leanne Rowe, whose list of previous credits is small, and Jamie Foreman, a familiar character actor who was most recently seen as The Duke in Layer Cake. Bill is fearsome, a true cinematic villain, and Foreman's performance stands alongside any of the greats who have played the part in the past. Would that the same could be said of Ben Kingsley. Alec Guinness fans need not worry. Kingsley's campy interpretation of the story's most diabolical character comes close to character assassination, turning Fagin into a bumbling, sniveling wretch.
The definitive filmed version of Oliver Twist remains David Lean's 1948 edition. Polanski's new adaptation comes close only in the way it looks. In every other aspect, it is inferior. Even the pace is off. Parts of 2005's Oliver Twist rush by in an instant, making it apparent that things were cut or condensed. Other parts of needlessly prolonged, leading to audience disinterest. As an introduction to the story for someone with no previous exposure to Oliver Twist, Polanski's movie is adequate. And Dickens "completists" will also want to see it. For everyone else, however, the appeal is as limited as the director's shortsighted vision.