Early in the new rendition of Charles Dickens’s novel of social injustice, a camera shot briefly holds the friendless orphan between the bars of the workhouse gate. Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is in prison, where he was born and where he is destined, though not absolutely guaranteed, to die. Previous attempts to adapt the harsh and problematic Oliver Twist for the screen have not aged well: Alec Guinness’s grotesque portrayal of Fagin, with a huge hook nose prosthetic in a key supporting role, deformed David Lean’s lavish 1948 try, while the musical revue Oliver! (1968) wore itself out with frenetic camp. If a 21st-century
version is necessary, then Roman Polanski’s your man: In his films, as in Dickens, the strong prey upon the weak with a monomaniacal glee that often borders on the grimly comic, while the director’s own blighted childhood lends an inevitable autobiographical frisson to Oliver’s travails.
Accomplished if lacking in urgency, this Oliver Twist (scripted by Ronald Harwood, who also wrote The Pianist) showcases Polanski’s proven gift for Dickensian caricature, beginning with the jowly ranks of the workhouse board, a quivering pile of gluttonous entitlement. Harry Eden conjures a spry, confident, yet vulnerable Artful Dodger (and pulls off a delightful meat-under-hat trick to boot); Jamie Foreman’s Sykes is a discomfiting marvel of dead-eyed contamination; and Ben Kingsley’s wizened Fagin is a deeply ambivalent figure—at once Oliver’s benefactor and curse, he’s by turns impish, repellent, avuncular, terrifying, and pathetic, and Kingsley simply disappears into this musty rag-and-bone shop. The film’s real star, though, is Prague in the role of East End London, which has rarely looked so infernal: a diseased tangle of cobblestone arteries choked with shit and trash and squalling herds of misery. Oliver Twist is a horror movie, but as its potent last scenes attest, there’s a twinge of the supernatural about its hero’s resilient goodness. The quality of mercy is strained, but by some strange feat it doesn’t dissolve entirely.