Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation of Oliver Twist felt much more like a play than a movie, but despite its deliberate and at times slow pace, by the end of the film I found myself quite engaged in the story and the fate of its characters.
Oliver Twist is not one of the Charles Dickens books that I have read, but it certainly felt like one of his stories with its bleak outlook and colorful characters. The movie begins with nine year-old Oliver (Barney Clark) being taken to an orphanage, where he is told that he will be educated and taught a useful trade. In actuality the orphanage is more of a workhouse, where the children are underfed and overworked. After making the mistake of asking for more porridge at dinnertime, Oliver is denounced as being ungrateful and sold off to a local undertaker in need of an extra worker. These new caretakers are no better than the heartless orphanage directors, so Oliver runs away, walking 70 harsh miles to London. Once there, he is taken in by Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), the most talented of a young gang of pickpockets who steal food and jewelry for their boss, Fagin (Ben Kingsley). Despite Fagin’s unsavory choice of occupation, he provides Oliver with decent food, a place to sleep, and his first experience with benevolence. Sadly, this new home also means a future of constant poverty and employment by Fagin, having to steal wallets and food to earn his keep. When Artful Dodger is nearly caught attempting to pickpocket a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), Oliver suddenly finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is arrested as the assumed thief. He finally benefits from the circumstances, however, and once it is determined that he is innocent of the theft, Mr. Brownlow takes pity on Oliver and essentially adopts him. Unfortunately, Fagin’s rather disreputable associate Bill Sykes, upon hearing of Oliver’s new benefactor, kidnaps the unwilling Oliver from Mr. Brownlow’s care in order to use him for more sinister purposes, forcing Oliver back into a dismal future.
Oliver’s story is both moving and pitiable, although the overall tone of the film is gloomy. His entire life is at the mercy of the adults around him, whether they are the heartless bureaucrats who would see him in a workhouse, the desperate criminals who would force him into a life of theft and poverty, or the few kind souls who would provide him a home and an education. Regardless of his particular environment, Oliver maintains a permanent expression of melancholy to demonstrate his sad situation and speaks a total of perhaps 10 lines throughout the entire film. Polanski seems to take particular interest in Fagin’s character, who, despite his profession as a thief, is not necessarily evil and does appear to have some redeeming qualities of character. The movie as a whole was quite slow at times, but the second half turned out to be much more rousing, when the menacing Sykes proves himself capable of the most horrific acts.
I would assume that any fan of Dickens would appreciate this movie, and despite its sluggish moments (and extremely long running time), the story itself is immensely engaging. I was somewhat annoyed at times that Oliver had so little dialogue given that the movie is ostensibly centered on his character; but, I suppose he didn’t need to blather on about his unfortunate life in order for the audience to empathize with him. Oliver Twist is a decent movie and a great story, so I recommend it.