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Oliver Twist

A Literate, Lavish Adaptation of the Classic Novel

Based on Charles Dickens' novel of the same name, Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist may be, as some critics are likely to argue, a faithful, if mostly redundant (especially considering the twenty odd adaptations that have preceded Polanski's film, including the 1968 musical that won the Academy Award for Best Picture), adaptation but it's also likely to hold some appeal for contemporary audiences predisposed toward literary adaptations and period pieces.

For children, Polanski's film will be their first exposure to 19th-century Victorian England and probably lead them to Dickens other, equally absorbing, novels (e.g., Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities). Indeed, it's a testament to Dickens' superior, some might say transcendent, storytelling skills that a novel initially intended to depict the horrors of English poverty laws has retained its accessibility across disparate generations (not surprisingly, the primary issue Dickens raised in Oliver Twist continues to have relevance, i.e., how societies treat the poorest among them, specifically children born into poverty).

Oliver Twist follows the fortunes and misadventures of its titular character, Oliver Twist, a young orphan unlucky enough to be born in a time (and country) where children were treated (or rather mistreated) as chattel. Oliver's travails begin with a stint in the local workhouse. Here, children are given gruel to eat and made to perform physically intensive work while the managerial staff (especially the owners) enjoy multiple course meals. Compassion, tenderness, or anything approaching selflessness are in extreme short supply here. Due to another (bad) turn in luck, Oliver literally draws the short straw, leaving him in the unenviable position of asking for more food from the staff. The workhouse staff is not amused. Oliver, now perceived as a troublemaker, is sent packing, temporarily to a chimney sweep and later, to the local caretaker, the first to treat Oliver with a modicum of respect. That sojourn, however, doesn't last long.

Cue Oliver's optimistic 70-mile journey on foot to London, a bustling, industrializing metropolis of privilege, wealth, and extreme poverty. Shoeless (and with bloody feet), hungry, and desperate, Oliver finds, or rather is found, by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a wily pickpocket. The Artful Dodger takes Oliver to Fagin, a fence who oversees a pickpocket operation (all of Fagin's employees are young boys). Obviously, the Dodger and Fagin see Oliver as another potential pickpocket and source of income. To that end, Oliver undergoes training in the fine art of picking pockets. Fagin's circle also includes the thuggish Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman) and Sykes more sympathetic girlfriend, Nancy (Leanne Rowe). Oliver's fortunes take a turn for the better, if only temporarily, when a wealthy man, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), takes pity on Oliver and becomes Oliver's benefactor.

For older filmgoers and readers, Polanski's film will likely remind them of their first time reading a Charles Dickens' novels. For more serious Dickens fans (and academics), this adaptation will become the subject of discussion for Polanski's depiction of Fagin as ambiguous and ambivalent. Polanski's adaptation, penned by Ronald Harwood (Harwood adapted The Pianist for the screen), attempts, mostly successfully to humanize Fagin, allowing him, if not outright compassion, then at least ambiguous motives for helping Oliver (especially later in the film).

For other filmgoers, Polanski's film delivers what you'd expect from a classically oriented filmmaker: sumptuous production design, impeccable period detail, lush visual compositions, and unobtrusive camerawork. Given the source novel and the time period, Polanski indulges in caricature, using actors of all shapes and sizes to reflect individual character (e.g., gluttony, avarice, and the other deadly sins are well represented).

If, however, audiences are expecting an innovative, unexplored approach, Polanski's adaptation of Oliver Twist will fall short of expectations (with the exception of Fagin's characterization). Still, for the craftsmanship and technical expertise on display, Oliver Twist will delight audiences already predisposed to immersing themselves, once again, in the familiar world of Charles Dickens and his colorful characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars