After his Oscar win for “The Pianist” in 2003, director Roman Polanski returns to the screen with a remake of “Oliver Twist.” Although his version adds nothing new, Polanski’s talented cast and $60-million budget amount to a worthy adaptation.
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, “Oliver Twist” follows 10-year-old orphan Oliver (newcomer Barney Clark) through abusive living situations in 19th century England. After funneling through an orphanage, workhouse and apprenticeship with a mortician, Oliver finally flees his town and hikes 70 miles to London. There he finds relief and shelter with a band of pick-pocketing pre-teens. But when Oliver learns he’s not suited for a life of thievery, he struggles to escape the crime cycle.
Screenwriter Ronald Harwood (Who also worked with Polanski on “The Pianist”) ignores a subplot about discovering Oliver’s family identity. This omission, as well as the deletion of a ghost from the novel, heightens the level of realism.
The result is a straightforward adaptation that will likely be forgotten among so many others. But Polanski’s uncommonly vivid images of Victorian London could help the film distinguish itself over time. The dreary alleys and dungeons re-created on set in Prague have detail and precision that the older versions can’t match.
The movie also finds unique inspiration in its cast. Ben Kingsley (“House of Sand and Fog”) as Fagin, leader of the pick-pocketing gang, captures the grotesque, slightly insane qualities of the character. Clark and a group of other child actors are charismatic and lively. And Kingsley’s murderous sidekick Bill (Jamie Foreman) has a fear-inspiring grimace that makes him the perfect screen villain.
Really, Polanski’s major setback is his dubious decision to retell such a familiar tale. But it seems like the director wanted to convey the enduring importance of the story to a new generation, and as an orphan himself, he is able to do it with impressive poignancy.