Oliver Twist: Polanski’s Screen Version of Classic Dickens Tale

A child’s perception of things has a clarity and immediacy unmatched by any subsequent experience.
Roman Polanski

Though Polanski doesn’t bring a fresh angle or a new interpretation to Charles Dickens’ classic, there’s still justification for him to make a new big-screen version and for us to see it. An argument can be made that every generation needs its own adaptations of literary classics, in the same way that “Little Women” was filmed three times in Hollywood: in 1933 by George Cukor, in 1949 by Mervyn LeRoy, and in 1994 by Gillian Armstrong.

“Oliver Twist” has not been seen as a straight film since David Lean’s controversial rendition, in 1948, with Alec Guinness as Fagin. There’s also the danger that viewers’ acquaintance will be based on Carol Reed’s 1968 Oscar-winning musical, “Oliver!”

“Oliver Twist” is a personal movie for Polanski.
It’s impossible to separate the intense journey of young Oliver from the young Polanski, a scrappy child maneuvering the awfulness of the Polish ghetto in WWII. Polanski’s personal experience has informed his retelling of “Oliver Twist” as much as it gave “The Pianist” dramatic urgency. Moreover, Polanski and Dickens shared the same kind of childhood. Dickens had a very unhappy childhood; his father was a scoundrel who was always in trouble. Polanski’s life story is well-documented with the tragic childhood he had in the ghettoes of WWII.

It’s also a logical follow-up to his last, Oscar-winning drama, “The Pianist,” which stirred audiences with its story of suffering and survival in the Warsaw Ghetto of WWII. And now, Polanski turns to another tale of survival, this one with a child at its center.

Another reason to see this film is Ben Kingsley’s interpretation of Fagin, which does shed a new, more humanistic light on the character. Having played noble heroes (“Gandhi”) and scary gangsters (“Sexy Beast”), Kingsley proves that his range is limitless. He instills Fagin with insecurity and other weakness that make the character more pitiable than just nasty or hateful.

Though more conventional than Polanski’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (1980), it’s unfair to expect every adaptation to have dramatic urgency and innovative perspective. Besides, it’s all relative: Though not particularly exciting, this “Oliver Twist” is superior to “Nicholas Nickleby,” a few years back, which also suffered from severe miscasting of the title role.

You could expect more from the link between the kind of yarn-spinning Dickens did and the legacy of Polanski’s cinematic storytelling. Indeed, this movie lacks the dark, disturbing elements of David Lean’s movie that was so controversial for its characterization of the Jewish villain Fagin that its American showings was delayed by three years, and then released in a cut that was at least 15 minutes shorter than the original, due to pressures from the Production Code and Jewish groups.

As a combination of fantasy and historical truth, Dickens has written a saga about a good-hearted English lad eager to better himself that’s exuberant and intriguing, full of incidents and surprises. The story is told through Oliver’s eyes. Just as Wladislaw Szpilman’s story was a fight for survival in “The Pianist,” so is Oliver’s a fight to survive against insurmountable odds, first in the austere surroundings of the Workhouse and then in the seedy side of London’s underworld.

The dark elements in “Oliver Twist” are mixed in with larger-than-life characters and the story’s more fanciful bends. Dickens’ humor, irony, and sarcasm, also come across in Polanski’s movie.

In adapting the novel, the challenge was how to retain its scope of socially pungent character, its complex patchwork of the needy, the seedy and the greedy, without diminishing Dickens’ propulsive plotting. The book is dense and long, and it meanders, since it was a period when writers wrote for papers in daily, weekly or monthly installments. Hence, the novels of that period don’t have the rigid construction that’s required for movie. For Harwood, the adaptation consisted of keeping the spirit of the book with scenes and characters untouched, and eliminating those subplots that distract from the main plot.

Harwood, fresh off his Oscar for adapting “The Pianist” into a wrenching film, isn’t daunted by the task of winnowing a massive book into a 130-minute-film, with a forward-driving narrative. Since Dickens’ great genius was his storytelling power, Polanski and Hayward approach the classic tale as a boy’s adventure yarn. (For those interested, I offer a detailed synopsis at the end of the review).

Skipping the harrowing episodes of Oliver’s birth and his mother’s death, the story opens on Oliver’s arrival on his ninth birthday at the workhouse, where he joins other kids doing menial labor until he’s exiled for his request for more gruel at mealtime. After a disagreeable spell working for an undertaker, Oliver makes his way to London, where he’s taken under wing by the Artful Dodger, top boy among the boys working as pickpockets for the devious Fagin.

Since this is an ensemble piece, with colorful characters, Polanski would have benefited from better supporting actors to play the characters, most of whom have assumed mythic-folkloristic dimensions. However, for some reason, Polanski cast little known actors, perhaps hoping that the viewers will not be biased by familiarity with their previous work (imagine if Nancy were played by Judi Dench or Maggie Smith).

With pureness, Dickens wrote monstrous characters as perceived through the eyes of a child who’s baffled and curious at the same time. Kingsley’s outsized creation, one of the most cherished in literature, centers on the appalling and appealing elements of thief master Fagin. He sees Fagin as a marginalized man, forced to exploit. Benefiting from an intuitive rather than acdemic approach,Kingsley’s more compassionate portrait is based on the notion that without Fagin, these children would starve to death.

When Kingsley is on screen, he rivets our attention. Problem is in the casting of the other roles, which is less effective. For the title role, Polanski chose 11-year-old schoolboy Barney Clark, who is disappointingly pale, failing to command the screen with a role that calls for his appearance in nearly every scene.

In a professionally reliable manner, Polanski translates onto the big screen key scenes that are familiar from the book, previous films, TV versions, both American and British, and, of course, the popular musical, on stage and screen.
The film’s last scene is the most interesting, since it has appeared in some TV but not bigscreen adaptations. Placing the principal characters in a new moral light, it depicts Fagin in prison just prior to execution. Oliver and Brownlow visit him in Newgate prison where he’s rapidly losing his mind. Despite all that has happened, Oliver feels sympathy for the wretched man. Fighting tears, Oliver offers up a silent prayer before he and Brownlow leave towards a more promising future.

Polanski has not injected into “Oliver Twist” the personal vision that has marked most of his films, but he brings reliable craftsmanship, turning Dickens’ timeless adventure about an orphan boy into a thrilling and humorous tale of good fighting evil. The story is set in the wretched environs of a cruel workhouse system and streets of a newly industrialized London, with its twin strata of poverty-ridden desperation and moneyed comfort. Dickens has immortalized youthful peril and triumphant survival in his novel, with its memorable characters: the street gang leader Fagin, the fleet-footed pickpocket artist the Artful Dodger, the pompous Mr. Bumble, the notorious criminal Bill Sykes.

While Polanski doesn’t succeed in making a period piece with contemporary overtones to intrigue audiences of all ages, he does capture the broader socio-economic contexts of London at that time, and the variety of colorful characters that Dickens described in greatest detail, particularly Fagin.

Hunched over, dressed in rags, with red hair and absent teethes, Kingsley’s Fagin looks frightening, although he doesn’t sport the hooked nose and accent that made Alec Guinness’ interpretation in Lean’s movie so objectionable to Jewish viewers. Although Fagin still come across as a villain, Kingsley humanizes him more than other actors who have played before this difficult role. Fagin takes advantage of the boys, forcing them break the law, but from his—and Dickens—perspective, this might be preferable to their fates if they were left to starve on the streets.

The experienced crew, most which worked on “The Pianist,” includes director of photography Pawel Edelman, production designer Allan Starski, editor Herv de Luze, costume designer Anna Sheppard, and composer Rachel Portman, all responsible for making a classy entertainment, a prestige film for upscale audiences.

Origins of Oliver Twist

When “Oliver Twist” first appeared in serialized form in the monthly magazine “Bentley’s Miscellany,” in 1837, its subtitle was “The Parish Boy’s Progress.” For the first installments, Dickens described to his readers what it was like to be a “parish boy” after the passing of the new Poor Law Act of 1834. Dickens saw the bill being hotly debated when he was a parliamentary reporter for the “Morning Chronicle,” and he continued to attack it in his fiction and journalism for the rest of his life.

London in that period was the biggest city in the world and it was fast developing, with masses of people drifting to the city from the country, without any means of survival. As the first social realist writer of his time, Dickens depicted the workhouses, and the way the poor and orphans were mistreated. Dickens himself came from a poor family and he worked in a factory when he was a child. There’s a sequence in the film in which the boys are made to pick oakum, the fibers of a rope that had worn, so you could reuse the rope. It was the most awful, painful, agonizing, work, and they put kids and convicts in prison to do it.

Dickens dramatized every level of English society. In “Oliver Twist,” it starts at the lowest level in the workhouse, with pompous officials who are violently cruel to the poor kids. Then, Oliver slowly works his way up until he escapes to London and falls in among thieves. Brownlow introduces Oliver to polite society, before he’s dragged back to the savage world of Fagin.

Detailed Synopsis

Brought up in a pauper’s Workhouse, orphan Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) and the rest of the boys are starving. They cast lots to decide who will ask for more gruel. Oliver is chosen, and at supper, after the normal allotment, he asks for more. Branded a troublemaker by the Workhouse beadle Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift) and the Board, Oliver is offered as an apprentice to anyone willing to take him. Narrowly escaping being bound to a chimney sweep, a dangerous business where small boys, lowered into chimneys, are routinely smothered, Oliver is apprenticed to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Michael Heath).

After being provoked about his dead mother by Noah Claypole (Chris Overton), another of the undertaker’s boys, Oliver instigates a fight. Unjustly beaten for his offense, Oliver makes his escape and runs away to London. On the outskirts of the city, tired and hungry, Oliver meets the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) who offers him a place to stay. Naive of life in London’s seedy underworld and unaware of their real trade, Oliver is thrown together with a band of boy pickpockets run by the sinister Fagin (Ben Kingsley). He also meets the brutal Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), and his girlfriend Nancy (Leanne Rowe).

Innocently going out with the Dodger and Charley Bates (Lewis Chase), another of Fagin’s boys, Oliver witnesses their real business, when the Dodger picks the pocket of a gentleman, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke). Brownlow discovers the robbery in progress, and Oliver is mistaken for the culprit. The chase ends, when Oliver is felled by a hefty blow, and is taken to the police.

While being questioned by the stern Magistrate Fang (Alun Armstrong), a witness proves Oliver’s innocence and the kindly Brownlow takes him to his home. The accuser becomes a benefactor, and Oliver is treated well by Brownlow and his housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin (Frances Cuka). Meanwhile, concerned that Oliver will betray them to the authorities, Fagin and Bill Sykes are determined to bring him back to Fagin’s lair.

When Brownlow sends Oliver on an errand to pay a local merchant five pounds and to return some books, he’s abducted by Sykes and Nancy. Thinking that Oliver has run away with his money, Brownlow concludes that Oliver was a thief all along, as suspected by his friend Mr. Grimwig (Paul Brooke).

Back among thieves, Oliver is tricked by Fagin to describe Brownlow’s house and its valuable contents. Sykes and fellow criminal Toby Crackit (Mark Strong) force Oliver to accompany them on an armed robbery at Brownlow’s house, since they need a small boy to enter a window for the housebreakers. The robbery is foiled when the household is alarmed and in the ensuing confusion, Oliver is shot. Bleeding with a bullet in his arm, Oliver is carried away by Sykes, who intends to throw him into the river, but, instead, he falls in.

Toby takes Oliver back to Fagin’s where he is nursed back to health. Sykes struggles back to his place, and tells Fagin that they must get rid of Oliver or else their livelihood is over. A sympathetic Nancy, fearful for Oliver’s life, makes contact with Brownlow and arranges to meet him beneath London Bridge. In a fit of rage, Sykes kills Nancy. Nancy’s friend Bet (Ophelia Lovibond) discovers the body and informs the police.

Brownlow is concerned for Oliver’s safety, even more so when he discovers that the police have tracked Sykes and Oliver to Toby Crackit’s house in the London slums. As the police move in, Sykes, using Oliver as a shield, scampers over sloping roofs pursued by the police and a hostile crowd. Suddenly, distracted by his dog, the murdering robber slips and accidentally hangs himself.

Oliver and Brownlow visit Fagin in Newgate prison where the thief-maker is rapidly losing his mind. Despite all that has happened, Oliver feels sympathy for the wretched man. Fighting tears, Oliver offers up a silent prayer before he and Brownlow leave on a coach traveling towards the promise of a better future.