Polanski’s Twist on Dickens classic

Barney Clark plays Oliver in the new Roman Polanski film.
Barney Clark plays Oliver in the new Roman Polanski film.
Photo courtesy of sonypictures.com

Film Review: Oliver Twist

The number of walking scenes in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist could rival Lord of the Rings. Although bordering on tedious at times, these scenes function well at emphasizing Oliver’s isolation and loneliness. The orphan is pictured several times on a lonely country road, struggling to put one foot in front of the other.

This new adaptation of Oliver Twist, starring Ben Kingsley as Fagin, Barney Clark as Oliver, and Leanne Rowe as Nancy, is a little more disturbing then expected, particularly in some of the film’s scenes of violence. But that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable to watch, as the film has many other more exciting and suspenseful moments of midnight robberies and escapes, despite occasionally slow moments.

The film is executed in a way that firmly links it with its literary origins. The opening credits are sequenced over a backdrop of sketchings, drawn in a style you’d expect to see on the plates of a Dickensian novel. As the sketches morph into live action, the ties to the images remain as many scenes have more of the feel of still-frame pictures or drawings than a steady flow of action.

Ultimately, the film returns to this concept as the final scene transforms yet again into a sketch for the closing credits. Though the idea of making every scene seem like a still-frame picture is creative, it sometimes made the movie difficult to watch. The scenes lose flow and appear disjointed, making the transition a little jarring.

Polanski creates poignant and interesting images throughout the film with his use of darkness and shadows, especially during scenes involving the menacing Bill Sykes. The contrast between light and dark shadows throughout the movie also adds to the dreariness of London’s poor districts as Oliver and his friends maneuver through narrow and crowded streets.

Polanski employs the dramatic tenor of thunderstorms and the moon to highlight important scenes, such as when Oliver is forced into a midnight robbery or runs away from the murderous Bill.

The acting in the film was commendable, as the majority of the actors portrayed the exaggerated and comical characters effectively. Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, owners of the workhouse where Oliver and other little orphan boys are employed, particularly demonstrate the satire common in Dickens’ characters.

For example, the Bumbles are always pictured sitting around a table in a comfortable room eating large and lengthy meals, all while the little boys they employ are on the brink of starvation. The hunger of the boys, of course, is what sets the entire plot into motion, as newcomer Clark timidly delivers the famous line, “Please sir, I want some more.” Critical favourite Kingsley makes Fagin, an old and mentally and physically ill criminal ringleader, utterly believable. The role of Fagin demands incredible versatility in moods and actions, and Kingsley pulls it off well.

In one scene, Fagin appears a simple old fool, coveting his secret horde of jewels, only to immediately transform into a dangerous and unstable murderer leaping across the room and threatening a peeping Oliver with a pair of scissors. Kingsley illustrates Fagin’s descent into total madness wonderfully, yelling and screaming in a frightening delirium from his London prison cell. Kingsley makes lunacy seem genuine and neither forced nor overdone.

The movie emphasizes many of the common elements found within Dickens’ novels, especially character exaggeration. Stereotypes are interwoven with social commentary on the disparity between the rich and poor of mid-nineteenth century London society.

The audience can easily appreciate the richness of Oliver Twist’s character development and cinematography, as Polanski effectively brings a classic Victorian novel to life without forgetting the story’s literary origins.

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