Roman Polanski's perfectly respectable but not quite perfect adapation of Charles Dickens' 1837 serial melodrama Oliver Twist. Polanski has at least two tough acts to follow in David Lean's classic 1948 interpretation and the indelible, Oscar-winning musical Oliver! that followed twenty years later. But nearly forty years later, Polanski has much to offer in another fine version of the well-worn tale.
For starters, Polanski has a strong adapter in screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist). The picture loses a bit of steam after the sparkling satire of its opening passages of workhouse and indentured-servant ignominy, but Harwood never strays from Dickens' plot and the dirty, thieves' argot of the London slums. Polanski likewise keeps the film unsparing in its dark passages while allowing for regular, sly touches of humor ("Treat him kindly," suggests one useless adult keeper of Oliver. "He seems to want it").
As it was in the beginning and ever shall be, young Oliver (Barney Clark) scrambles from utter poverty into the criminal class, specifically a group of inveterate thieves organized by aging craftsman Fagin (Sir Ben Kingsley) and overshadowed by violent brute Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman). Oliver befriends the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) and Charley Bates (Lewis Chase), who teach him the ropes; Nancy (Leanne Rowe), a prostitute who develops a motherly regard for the imperiled boy; and Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), Oliver's upper-class savior.
The crucial child actors are quite good, and Kingsley's literally crooked turn as Fagin finds new shadings in his pitiable, but unforgiven character (Fagin's devastating resolution is this Twist's most potent scene). Hardwicke and Rowe work hard to overcome the rushed script's shortcomings of character development, while Jamie Foreman seems sorely out of place doing a too-vulnerable variation on the comical hoods he habitually plays in modern-day London gangland pictures.
Polanski's Oliver Twist is one of those films that cries out for more time properly to tell its rich story. With intelligence and style (inspired by the art of Gustave Doré and Francisco Solé), Polanski makes a rewarding contribution to Dickens' legacy on screen.
The anamorphic transfer of Oliver Twist is passable, but mediocre by current standards: beside a general softness, the image poorly handles pans, tilts, and lines, which shimmer digitally (even, at times, on Fagin's brow). Sound is clear, and as further compensation, Sony's nifty special edition includes three featurettes by DVD-aficionado-favorite Laurent Bouzerau.
"Twist by Polanski" (28:35) chats up the director, cast, and even the pickpocket consultant about the thinking behind the storytelling and performance of this latest adaptation, while "The Best of Twist: Sets, Costumes, & Photography" (17:47) focuses on the design and technical elements. "Kidding with Oliver Twist: Barney Clark's Diary" is a very short but nevertheless intimate two-part interview with Clark, in which he reads several entries from his on-set diary and, one year later, explains his reaction to the finished film and the junket experience.
Trailers include Fun with Dick and Jane, The Pink Panther, The Da Vinci Code (teaser), Open Season, and The Baxter. The Oliver Twist trailer would have been nice, as well as a commentary by Polanksi, his stars, and/or screenwriter Ronald Harwood, but what's here constitutes an attractive package for fans of the story and its great director.
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