starring Ben Kingsley, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden, Leanne Row, Edward Hardwicke, Ian McNeice, Mark Strong and Barney Clark
written by Ronald Harwood
directed by Roman Polanski
This is a fair re-make of the famous 19th century English novel by Charles Dickens. You should see it. Rather than the orphan boy, Oliver, who is redeemed and saved from the criminal life of the London slums, the star of the story is the Jewish fence, Fagin, played brilliantly here by Ben Kingsley. In my imagination, though, the character of Fagin is best personified by Ron Moody’s performance in the 1968 British musical, Oliver. But older people may have their own favorite portrayals, specifically that of Alec Guiness in David Lean’s 1948 musical, and Lon Chaney in the 1922 version.
Hanging was a common form of punishment in those days. Britain is known to have hanged children as young as 10 years just for stealing bread. So, the name “Oliver Twist,” given to the orphan boy by the Beadle, Mr. Bumble, is a euphemism to the slow twists in mid-air at the end of a rope of a hanged body, and the association is played out in the novel as well as the film with occasionally dropped lines like,“Queer name - Oliver Twist,” “That boy will be hanged!”, and“Mark my words, I’ll see him hung.”
Just as I have a preference for Ron Moody’s portrayal of Fagin, I prefer Oliver Reed’s 1968 portrayal of the villain, Bill Sykes to that of Jamie Foreman in this version. Maybe because Oliver Reed spoke less, scowled better and looked tougher, and that way managed to communicate a more villainous personality. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that in life Oliver Reed was a notorious character.)
Like a Greek dramatic device, Noah Claypole (Chris Overton) correctly observes that the problem with Oliver is that he has been left alone too much: left by his mother, by his father, and by all his relations. And why not? Orphans in Charles Dickens’ time did not register on the social map. Neither did most children and women, who were not regarded as “persons” under the law at the time. In fact, orphans were rather despised, and continued to be so into the 20th century (as the portrayal of the orphan girl Anne Shirley in the Canadian classic, Anne of Green Gables , also helps illustrate). Although he is a villain, Fagin is the first person to take anything like a compassionate, humane interest in Oliver. Of course, his interest is not compassionate and humane at all, but it easily comes off like that compared to Oliver’s previous experience of life.
The dramatization of the grime and filth of 19th century Londonis striking. People today often rue the pollution caused by automobile exhaust and forget the worse pollution caused by urban horse dung. Despite their drawbacks, automobiles were a giant leap forward in urban hygiene. In the same vein, the world of Oliver Twist was a world without electricity, running water, and sewers. Yikes!! So much for the romance of the past.
Director Roman Polanski used what I guess are his own grandchildren as extras for cameo shots. Morgane Polanski appears as the “Farmer’s Daughter,” and Elvis Polanski is the “Boy with Hoop.”