Half way through Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist I started to wonder why we need another film of Dickens’s novel. Two masterly adaptations already exist – David Lean’s 1948 drama and Carol Reed’s 1968 musical. Polanski says he wanted to make a movie for children after the darkness of his award-laden The Pianist. Given his predecessors’ reputations, was he attempting to place himself beside Lean and Reed in the cinematic Hall of Fame?
If that was his aim he has failed. Oliver Twist moves along at a cracking pace, but a classic it is not. It has none of the gravitas of the 1948 version or vivacity of the musical. It is a well-known story, but I’ll recap: nine-year old Oliver is taken to the workhouse where the rapacious benefactors starve the children. Lots are drawn for a boy to ask for more. Oliver pulls the short straw, asks the famous question and is marked out a troublemaker by the powers that be, who hastily pack him off to an undertaker, where he is treated cruelly so runs away to London. In London he falls in with the vagabond Fagin and his team of pickpockets. The boy is going one way – to the noose. But fate – and a kindly gentleman – intervenes, proving that bad company cannot ruin truly good character.
The film oozes realism and like Polanski’s acclaimed adaptations, the bloody Macbeth and lyrical Tess, the setting – grimy Victorian London – is a central character. Painted backdrops are effective, especially when Bill Sykes flees London pursued by crows, and hark back to the Gainsborough pictures of the 1940s and the magic realism of Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter, as well as the idealised landscapes of the novel – which Polanski follows closely.
Polanski packs a lot into three hours, and the film snaps along, but his refusal to throw out much is its undoing. The novel is labyrinthine, stuffed with caricatures and deft plotting . But even at 130 minutes the characters struggle to breathe. Harry Eden’s Artful Dodger is little more than a Cockney wink and a how d’ya do. Ben Kingsley’s Fagin too nuanced for such a larger than life character in what is essentially a morality play. Jamie Foreman as bullying Bill Sykes never manages the brooding malevolence of Oliver Reed – a landmark portrayal of cinematic menace – in the 1968 musical, and Barney Clark is sweet but the role underwritten and he has not the winsome beauty of Mark Lester. It is the cameos that make the film: best of all is Alun Armstrong’s hilarious set piece as Mr Fang the magistrate.
Of course the audience Polanski is aiming at are unlikely to have seen these adaptations. But whether a generation brought up on ADD TV will comfortably sit through over three hours of straightforward storytelling is uncertain. So why do we need another version? Polanski has always been an autobiographical film-maker and perhaps the reason is his own troubled childhood and the need to acknowledge kindness found in dark corners by children forced on hard times, which is always a worthwhile subject, whatever the medium.