After Roman Polanski finished "The Pianist," he began wondering what project to tackle next. Inspired by a desire to produce a film that his children could enjoy, as well as by his own love of Charles Dickens' novel, he settled on "Oliver Twist." After all, the last version was filmed two generations ago, and it was a musical, Polanski's wife reminded him. And if the tone and treatment is less moody and squalid than in David Lean's 1948 version, we have Polanski's children and his own upbeat mentality to thank for it. Even more than other versions, Polanski's "Oliver Twist" is a quest story that focuses on a young orphan's stubborn desire to pursue a better life, rather than on the hardships that beat him down. Despite all that Oliver faces and the violence that follows him, it's a positive story about a survivor who eventually triumphs, and Polanski manages to capture some of Dickens' humor as well.
On one of the extras, Jamie Foreman, who plays the villainous Bill Sykes, says that the more time he spent on the set with Polanski, the more he could see Oliver in him. And in truth, their stories aren't that far apart. Oliver is a 10-year-old orphan born into one of many Victorian workhouses who, after beatings and an apprenticeship at a coffin makers that was just as bad, runs away to London. There, he's recruited by a gang of young pickpockets and thieves working for an old Jewish man named Fagin, who's partnered with the more violent Sykes. Polanski, meanwhile, escaped from a Krakow ghetto and wandered the Polish countryside seeking refuge, just as Oliver did en route to London. His parents were taken to a Nazi concentration camp when he was eight, and he witnessed many abuses, as Oliver did. Having sold newspapers on the street corners of Krakow, he also knows what it's like to work the streets, so it's no wonder that he was so drawn to "Oliver Twist."
Charles Dickens wrote "Oliver Twist" when he was in his twenties, which is incredible considering he writes with such authority about the abuses of children during the Victorian era. Polanski's London of 1837 is a colorful and exciting city, one he says he researched meticulously. But when we first see the boy, he's in a small town 70 miles away from London. When the other boys in the workplace draw straws to see who must break precedent and ask for more gruel, Oliver has the bad luck to pick the short one. Moments after he delivers that famous line, "Please sir, I want some more" and is chased and throttled with a cane, you know that there's something different about this boy. Barney Clark won the role of Oliver after Polanski cast a wide net to find his young star. What appealed to Polanski is what appeals to viewers—Clark has a charismatic face which bespeaks a combination of intelligence, goodness, and steadfastness. He's a likable kid, so much so that when the wealthy Mr. Brownlow says "Something in him touched my heart," you know what he means.
Polanski stays pretty close to the book except for ditching some of the more confusing and less plausible sideplots. After the parish beadle, Bumble (Jeremy Swift) beats him and tries to pawn him off in an apprenticeship program—first, unsuccessfully, to a chimneysweep—and Oliver finds that his life at the coffin maker's is no better, he runs away. By the time he arrives in London after walking 70 miles and experiencing malnutrition, he collapses in a corner. He's noticed by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a 14-year-old master pickpocket and thief who earned his nickname because of his larcenous and elusive ways. One stolen street-meal leads to a trip back to the apartment of the man who is to them what a pimp is to prostitutes. Polanski's Fagin, played by Ben Kingsley, isn't even identified as Jewish—perhaps because Lean had to defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism. Instead, Fagin is played much like the character of Ben Gunn from "Treasure Island"—old, wise, bent-over, but also a bit demented. As he hovers over his own treasure, secretly withheld from the boys who bring him loot each day, there's a craziness that comes across nicely. In the hands of a less-talented actor, Fagin would have seemed much a much broader and comic character, but Kingsley manages to create a complex man who embodies both positive and negative virtues. When he's on-camera, it's his stage.
Oliver isn't a natural thief, and when he bolts after witnessing the boys steal a silk handkerchief from a man outside a bookstore and is caught by police, it's the bookstore owner who tells authorities the lad is innocent. And Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) takes him home to live with them. In Dickens' novel and Polanski's film, the boy is then kidnapped by the gang and forced to help them break into the Brownlow mansion, when he would rather break from the gang. It's Nancy (Leanne Rowe), Sykes' mistress/prostitute who befriends Oliver and recognizes that he's not like them, that he's deserving of a better life.
Video: Mastered in High Definition, the transfer is excellent, though the colors reflect the drabness of Victorian times, further dulled by the mists and fog that swirl about London and the English countryside. But even in dark scenes the picture is sharp, with no noticeable graininess. "Oliver Twist" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, which brings London to life across panoramic frames.
Audio: Soundtrack options are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English and French. As with the video, the sound for this 130-minute film is excellent.
Extras: The trend these days is to present more short extras rather than a single "making of" feature, and that continues here. Three short features that easily could have been one combine behind-the-scenes shots along with interviews on-camera. In "Twist by Polanski," the focus is on Polanski and how he came to tackle his own cinematic distillation of Dickens' 350-page novel. In "The Best of Twist" (a misleading title), we learn how Polanski assembled the same crew from "The Pianist" because they were able to understand what he wanted and help him get there through shortcuts. In "Kidding with Twist" the focus is on the young actors, who recall how funny Kingsley was, and how striking it was for him to remain in character at all moments during filming.
Bottom Line: Though Polanski did this for his children, parents should be warned that there is a graphic hanging and a shooting. Other than that, this PG-13 film is suitable for families. The performances are wonderful—Kingsley, especially—and the sets, costumes, and camerawork evoke a colorful period in English history. And who knows? Kids today who watch "Oliver Twist" may not complain as much about doing chores afterwards. That could be the best bonus feature.