As far as film adaptations of Charles Dickens go, Roman Polanski's "Oliver Twist" is a good one.
"Twist," which opens nationwide today, features the always lovely Ben Kingsley as Fagin and relative newcomer Barney Clark as the title character.
Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood stay mostly faithful to Dickens' classic, written when the author was only 25. A few story lines have been excised for time—and considering the 130-minute running time, a bit more might have been trimmed as well to keep the film from plodding along.
That said, "Twist" is an artful adaptation from Polanski, and the score by Rachel Portman is as full-bodied as 19th-century London is grimy.
Clark plays the part of orphaned Twist very well, relying mainly on restrained yet effective expressions for most of the film as he shuffles from orphanage to family to criminal Fagin to charitable Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke).
Kingsley stands out as Fagin, the pathetic criminal who oversees a posse of delinquent children, including the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) who meets Oliver and introduces him to Fagin.
For all of Fagin's faults, Oliver feels that Fagin treats his underlings like humans—at least most of the time—and that's a redeeming quality for the weird old man. It also sets Fagin apart from many other adults in Oliver's brief life, who take umbrage when Oliver dares suggest he be treated better.
Oliver experiences somewhat of a reprieve when he meets Mr. Brownlow, but that is short-lived as Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), an associate of Fagin's, won't stand for it. In fact, the second half of the film shifts from being about Oliver to being around him as it focuses more and more on Sykes.
"Twist" is a long, dark movie with plenty of mud, dirt, soot, grime and rags. That said, it offers a couple of funny moments—like when the woman of the house that takes Oliver in a for a spell is told that Oliver has gotten in trouble because she has been too kind to him.
"Dear, dear, this comes of being liberal!" she says.
Every facet of filmmaking is superbly wrought here—except for the pacing, which at times makes you feel like you're in a London fog, just waiting for it to lift.
The film would probably make a good Dickensian teaching tool, however, and Sony is in fact offering a free teaching guide on the movie's official Web site.
If Dickens is your cup of tea, this adaptation of "Oliver Twist" will hit the spot—though you won't likely ask for more.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images. Reviewer's Note: A good, albeit mostly dark and heavy, production. One scene, involving a bludgeoning that cuts before getting too nasty, is nevertheless unsettling.
Director: Roman Polanski
Writer: Ronald Harwood (based on the novel by Charles Dickens)
Cast: Oliver Twist: Barney Clark; Fagin: Ben Kingsley; Bill Sykes: Jamie Foreman; Artful Dodger: Harry Eden; Nancy: Leanne Rowe; Mr. Brownlow: Edward Hardwicke.
The movie's official Web site is here.