When it was first reported that Roman Polanski would be following his Oscar-winning "The Pianist" with an adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Oliver Twist," a collective groan went up among the cognoscenti. Why produce yet another version of this old warhorse, which has already been adapted more than 20 times for film and television? Besides, with his mammothly coincidental plots and two-ton sentimentality, isn't Dickens hopelessly out of fashion - especially for a twisted cynic like Polanski?
These judgments reflect a fundamental misreading of both Dickens and Polanski. Dickens, of course, although addicted to the cause of happiness, is among the darkest of novelists; it's no accident that Dostoevsky was profoundly influenced by him (especially "Oliver Twist"). And Polanski, as "The Pianist" so fervently demonstrated, has a vast fund of human sympathy.
So it's no surprise (at least to me) that his "Oliver Twist" is altogether remarkable, a near-masterpiece. In a way, it's as personal a film as "The Pianist," and I would guess for the same reason: It taps into his own memories of childhood abandonment. (His parents were deported from Krakow's Jewish ghetto to Nazi concentration camps). Polanski has said that he wanted to make a film that "his kids could somehow identify with." He must respect his children a great deal, because he has fashioned a movie that gets very deep inside the terrors and frailties of boyhood. Nothing in this movie condescends to young imaginations, no treacle coats the imagery.
George Gissing, in his essay on "Oliver Twist," wrote that "the novelist's first duty is to make us see what he has seen himself, whether with the actual eye or with that of imagination, and no one ever did this more successfully than Dickens in his best moments." Polanski's "Oliver Twist" has that same fevered veracity. All of the familiar scenes are here: The starving, orphaned Oliver (Barney Clark) risking the wrath of his overseers at feeding time by asking for "more"; Oliver's introduction to the lair of street-gang leader Fagin (Ben Kingsley), with his depraved jollity and cunning; the murder of the prostitute Nancy (Leanne Rowe) - Oliver's one true friend in the abyss - at the hands of the pulverizingly brutal Bill Sikes (Jamie Foreman). The net effect is nothing so simple as a parade of Dickens's greatest hits.