It's almost impossible to watch Roman Polanski's rendition of Oliver Twist without drawing parallels between the deprivations endured by the book's young protagonist and the director's own brutal boyhood. A Jew raised in Nazi-occupied Poland, Polanski first tackled the Holocaust head-on in his 2002 film The Pianist, but Oliver Twist, more than anything else he's made, plays like Polanski's autobiography.
That makes it all the sadder to report that the picture is a disappointingly flat, disjointed affair. Although it hews closely to David Lean's magnificent 1948 version (which similarly condensed the novel's plot), Polanski's film isn't nearly as captivating. Though not without its charms, it proves surprisingly less atmospheric, and less emotionally involving, than its predecessor.
Is there anybody who doesn't know Charles Dickens' story of young Oliver Twist, the Victorian-era orphan, raised in a pauper's workhouse, who runs afoul of his superiors when he has the temerity to ask for more gruel? His circumstances hardly improve when he's apprenticed to an undertaker and, after a run-in with another boy, the small but plucky Oliver (played by Barney Clark) runs away to London. There, he falls in with a gang of adolescent pickpockets who work for the sinister Fagin (Ben Kingsley).
He also encounters the benevolent Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), who takes him in and treats him with kindness. Happiness proves short-lived, however, as Fagin, worried that Oliver will expose his operation, sends two associates, the criminal Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman) and his girlfriend Nancy (Leanne Rowe), to abduct the boy.
Up until this point, the film is, if not wildly engaging, at least appealing enough to hold your attention. But suddenly the focus shifts away from Oliver and onto Sykes, Nancy, Fagin and a colleague of Sykes', the carrot-topped fop Toby Crackits (Mark Strong). None of them has the appeal of Oliver, nor are their individual or joint exploits particularly interesting, or even understandable. Scenes suddenly feel cobbled together, as when Sykes marches Oliver out of Fagin's lair, only to bring him back and then take him away a second time. Oliver, meanwhile, is such a minor presence onscreen for the next 45 minutes that he might as well not be there at all.
One of Polanski's great strengths, from Knife in the Water and Chinatown to Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist, is his ability to create atmosphere -- murky, moody, suspenseful, highly disturbing atmosphere. His films are suffused with it, thanks to a combination of his vision and that of his gifted cinematographers, and production designers. But frankly, if Polanski's name were not up on the screen here, few would guess that he even showed up on the set, so lacking is it of the qualities that have made his other films so memorable. Instead of employing a naturalistic look -- one that refrains from drawing attention to itself -- Polanski seems to be aiming for a slightly larger-than-life effect. As a result, you'll feel as though you're watching a production, rather than living inside it. Those who have seen director Carol Reed's Academy Award-winning version of the story, the 1968 musical Oliver! (or any of the hundreds of stage productions in its wake), have already peered into Oliver's world from a kind of remove. But movies have the great ability to seemingly place you inside the action, to live it along with the characters. There's none of that here; this Oliver Twist feels designed and manufactured. Even the grime on the boys' faces seems painted on, while the muted grays and browns and even the squalor are too "perfect" to be believable.
Young Barney Clark, too, is cute but not wholly convincing as Oliver, and the others are fine but not exceptional. The film's score is as much a part of the story as the dialogue and plot, given that there are great stretches of action with no one speaking. Composer Rachel Portman, whose score for The Cider House Rules was among the finest of all time, contributes a jaunty, jocular patchwork that suggests adventure and sentiment, and carries the story forward nicely.
Oliver Twist is Polanski's first children's film -- he reportedly wanted to make a movie that would appeal to his two young children, both of whom have cameos -- though its PG-13 rating could leave it without an audience. (There are mildly scary bits, including Sykes beating Nancy to death, albeit off-screen. But Oliver never seems traumatized by all his ups and downs, so maybe kids won't be either.) Perhaps it says something that Polanski chose to dwell less on the deprivations Oliver suffers than on his equilibrium in the face of so much hardship. Given the director's own nightmarish childhood, one can hardly fault him for that.