The 1968 musical “Oliver!” and its cheerful punctuation notwithstanding, Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” is a dark, violent story, a working-class nightmare begging for a happy ending that it only barely gets. Roman Polanski’s version doesn’t shy away from the text’s alarming elements. They are instead put to good use, adding shadow and texture to the lively, plot-driven story that is still, after almost 200 years, pretty enjoyable.
Oliver is played by Barney Clark, a small, angelic-faced boy who sheds tears more often than he smiles, a choice that seems to indicate Polanski’s acceptance of the story’s sadness. A kindly gentleman (Edward Hardwicke) sees goodness and innocence in the orphan boy, and young Clark matches that description. He has a face and voice that command sympathy, and his few positive interactions with adults make us yearn for his happiness as much as he does.
Oliver starts life in an orphanage, as you know, then goes to a workhouse, then to a stint of servitude in a funeral parlor, and finally into the alleys of London to live on his own. There he meets the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a street-wise urchin highly skilled in the arts of shoplifting and pocket-picking. He takes Oliver back to his gang of boys and their leader, the grizzled, elderly Fagin (Ben Kingsley).
Associated with Fagin and his boys is Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), a man of genuine evil and meanness. Fagin is a thief, a crook and an exploiter, but he doesn’t favor physical harm as a way of getting what he wants. Bill, on the other hand, is a brute. Accompanied by his girlfriend Nancy (Leanne Rowe), who hates him yet accepts his abuse, Bill is the story’s manifestation of true wickedness. Oddly, he calls Fagin the devil, leading one to wonder what Bill’s value system is like, where he is blameless while Fagin is evil incarnate.
Fagin is an interesting character generally, being caught between his germ-sized conscience and his greed, but the version fashioned by Kingsley is especially intriguing. A consummate actor, Kingsley creates entirely new ways of walking, talking and gesturing for Fagin — a complete creation, in other words, not just Kingsley with a wig on. I don’t get the sense of Fagin being “real,” necessarily, but rather such a thoroughly conceived fantasy character that he takes on a life of his own, like the Wicked Witch of the West or Yosemite Sam.
The film (with a screenplay adapted by Ronald Harwood) authentically reconstructs the griminess and desperation of Oliver’s world, yet maintains a certain storybook unrealism, too. The dozens of actors who play the minor characters must have been cast because they had the right “look”: a fancy-pantsed judge, a haggard mortician’s wife, a dowdy housekeeper, and so forth. Polanski succeeds at giving the story high dramatic stakes, with peril at every turn, all while keeping it charmingly “Dickensian.” You look at that fat-necked aristocrat, chowing down on turkey while Oliver gets busted for wanting more gruel, and you think: That guy looks like a character in a Dickens novel.
B (2 hrs., 10 min.; )