Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist


As far as the works of Dickens goes, Oliver Twist is probably the second schlockiest piece that I have read by him, only superseded by A Christmas Carol. In both, the saccharine heavy quality becomes almost unbearable by the end, if Dickens was not a master of juxtaposition and making even sappy-sweet story lines literary and fun. But the problem that plagues the adaptation of Carol to the screen, namely getting the balance of bittersweetness and sarcasm from the Dickens' original, also plagues Twist. They, by nature, must abandon the careful wording of the master, who liked long winded descriptions and sudden plot twists, and be reigned into a medium not wholly anticipated by Dickens in his day.

Twist has been made into numerous movies, at least one miniseries, a musical and at least one cartoon. The critics take David Lean's 1948 version as being definitive. My personal favorite is the 1985 BBC Miniseries, though I have not seen Lean's movie. Polanski, a talented director, is faced with the standard problem of brining new life to an old story, without completely leaving his base behind.

His version stars a nearly unrecognizable Ben Kingsley as Fagin. Besides Kingsley, most of the other names probably would not catch your eye, though this is not an indication of their acting at all. Barney Clark competently played Oliver. Jamie Foreman did a good turn as Sykes. I would like especially to give a brief handclap to Leanne Rowe, as Nancy, though, for finally giving the life to the character that she deserves. It was also something of a Dickens-geek pleasure to see Alun Armstrong as Fang (who later played Bucket in the 2005/6 Bleak House miniseries) and the "boy who would be Jo" (in the same mini), Harry Eden, as the Artful Dodger.

A book that requires the slicing of subplots as a six-hour mini-series has almost no hope of staying in tact in a two-hour movie, without severely stretching the narrative, and this occurs with Twist. The beginning is roughly the same, though treated as a more a series of vignettes than stapled together with honest narrative glue, as the novel. This generally continues up until Oliver's "trial", in which some of the first signs of narrative fast forwarding shows up. This leads to later incidents of increased forwarding. If the "break-in" could be seen as the end of act three, it can also be seen as the point in which the movie and the novel part general ways, only snapping back together again at the end.

What is shaved, though, might be welcome to the casual viewer, for it is largely that bit which makes Twist so schlocky, the way that everyone knows everyone else, or was separated at birth, or witnessed this, or was part of a conspiracy to do that, etc. In other words, the novel originated as a monthly periodical, and like a soap opera descended into a series of coincidences (well-telegraphed ones, he planned it as no real surprise), as something of a plot-twist award to its readers. The movie takes up only a couple of hours, and a coincidence storm would seem far too over the top, and so must shed them. In doing so, it arguably makes the story less Hallmark and more Horatio Algiers, which is not so bad.

If one is not so outraged at the handling of the plotline as to be forced to give it up, they will enjoy a quite beautifully directed version of the movie. This is not so much 19th century London as a moving painting of what we think London would look like. The colors are dead on for effect. The streets bustle. The bars are overfilled. It is a panorama of life collected in two-short hours, and it works. The scene of Sykes walking across the country yard, as well as the "shot from the back" walks to the break-in, are particularly effective example of Polanski's eye for the shot. I have also heard great things about David Lean's version, so I will need to track it down and do a comparison.

All in all, the movie satisfies, but is lacking. One thing it lacks is a title character who actually does more than get drug along. Polanski stages him as a moving plot point, who inspires jealousy and desire in others, or love. Nancy, Bill, Fagin, Brownlow and the Dodger do things. Twist just has things done to him, with the possible exception of running away. At least the Twist of the novel showed an urge to better himself, to try and make it.

Another thing it lacks is that level of schlockiness that the story line needs to be well rounded. For better or worse, this is mean to be a "Hallmark" movie. It is at least a little bit about the finding of family you did not know you had and about overcoming everything. By making it more about Oliver just getting away from the thieves, Polanski has made it more reasonable, but a little less true to the mark.

Overall, recommended, but I recommend you watch at least one other version. Or, maybe, read the book.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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