When it was first reported that Roman Polanski would be following his Oscar-winning "The Pianist" with an adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist," a collective groan went up among the cognoscenti. Why produce yet another version of this old warhorse, which has already been adapted more than 20 times for film and television? Besides, with his mammothly coincidental plots and two-ton sentimentality, isn't Dickens hopelessly out of fashion - especially for a twisted cynic like Polanski?
These judgments reflect a fundamental misreading of both Dickens and Polanski. Dickens, of course, although addicted to the cause of happiness, is among the darkest of novelists; it's no accident that Dostoevsky was profoundly influenced by him (especially "Oliver Twist"). And Polanski, as "The Pianist" so fervently demonstrated, has a vast fund of human sympathy.
So it's no surprise (at least to me) that his "Oliver Twist" is altogether remarkable, a near-masterpiece. In a way, it's as personal a film as "The Pianist," and I would guess for the same reason: It taps into his own memories of childhood abandonment. (His parents were deported from Krakow's Jewish ghetto to Nazi concentration camps). Polanski has said that he wanted to make a film that "his kids could somehow identify with." He must respect his children a great deal, because he has fashioned a movie that gets very deep inside the terrors and frailties of boyhood. Nothing in this movie condescends to young imaginations, no treacle coats the imagery.
George Gissing, in his essay on "Oliver Twist," wrote that "the novelist's first duty is to make us see what he has seen himself, whether with the actual eye or with that of imagination, and no one ever did this more successfully than Dickens in his best moments." Polanski's "Oliver Twist" has that same fevered veracity. All of the familiar scenes are here: The starving, orphaned Oliver (Barney Clark) risking the wrath of his overseers at feeding time by asking for "more"; Oliver's introduction to the lair of street-gang leader Fagin (Ben Kingsley), with his depraved jollity and cunning; the murder of the prostitute Nancy (Leanne Rowe) - Oliver's one true friend in the abyss - at the hands of the pulverizingly brutal Bill Sikes (Jamie Foreman). The net effect is nothing so simple as a parade of Dickens's greatest hits.
Polanski's film is the first to truly put forth the dark derangement of Oliver's world, and it is this passion for emotional honesty which binds the famous scenes into a flowing whole. (Ronald Harwood's adaptation wisely jettisons many of Dickens's voluminous subplots). What gives the film its distinctive dread is that, stylistically, Polanski keeps the horrors tightly controlled - which makes them seem even more horrible. When Nancy is murdered, the blood pooling under her door is far more chilling than a full frontal depiction of the killing could ever be.
Another great distinction of "Oliver Twist" is Polanski's affinity for the sweetness of redemption. Most movies derived from Dickens founder whenever virtuousness intrudes; the bad guys are simply more intriguing, more camera-worthy, than their saintly counterparts. But Polanski doesn't sentimentalize the dark side because he knows too well what a blessing happiness can be. The "good" people in his movie, such as Nancy or the benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, are flesh-and-blood human beings, not angels of mercy.
Even Fagin, a character notoriously derived from the anti-Semitism of Victorian England, is given his due. Ben Kingsley gives a magisterial performance in which Fagin's humanity bursts forth from the caricature. His final scene with Oliver, where the valiant boy expresses gratitude to the crazed soul before his execution, is as harrowing as anything Polanski has ever done. In that moment, Fagin receives his benediction and Oliver, who apprehends the complexity of goodness, becomes a man. Grade: A
• Rated PG-13 for disturbing images.
Sex/Nudity: 2 scenes of innuendo. Violence: 20 scenes including many fights. Profanity: 5 mild expressions. Drugs/cigarettes/alcohol: 7 scenes of smoking, 9 scenes with drinking.