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Starring: Ben Kingsley, Barney Clarke and Leanne Rowe
Director: Roman Polanski
Rated: PG

OLIVER Twist is probably the most widely known of Charles Dickens’ novels.

One of his earliest, it was published in serial form in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne.

The 1830s saw the reform of laws concerning the poor and their support and the introduction of parish workhouses for orphans.

While reform might have been the buzzword, the reality of life for the poor was still harsh.

Dickens, a parliamentary journalist, took social reform causes to heart and made them the core of so many of his novels.

In the climate of current awareness of the abuse of children and, in so many countries, their exploitation, the story of Oliver Twist is still relevant.

For older filmgoers, there are the powerful memories of David Lean’s 1948 classic with Alec Guinness’s memorable portrait of Fagin.

For some, there are the memories of the 1968 film of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver with so many of its hummable tunes and their lyrics commenting on Dickens’ characters: Pick a Pocket or two, I’d do anything, Consider yourself … These images influence our appreciation of any new version.

In the latest film, playwright Ronald Harwood (The Dresser, The Pianist) has streamlined the plot (omitting the story of Oliver’s mother and Dickens’ delight in coincidences).

The director is Roman Polanski, who has stated that he wants this to be a children’s film, a child’s view of Fagin and his gang – a touch of fantasy that is larger than life.

With marvellous sets, costumes and Rachel Portman’s Dickensian score, he has created a 19th century London that feels authentic.

Polanski is no stranger to English literature.

Aside from such classics as Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, he has directed Macbeth and Thomas Hardy’s Tess for the screen.

Two problems face a director of the Oliver Twist story.

The first is how to present Oliver himself. Sometimes in the past Oliver has been too sweet and even insipid.

Barney Clark’s Oliver is much stronger. We are given quite a few sequences in the workhouse and the funeral parlour where his actions show some inner fire.

He is always well mannered and appreciative with an innate goodness. But he is strong.

The other problem is how to present Fagin, especially his Jewish identity and manner.

Dickens is said to have toned down his portrait after receiving feedback that it could be construed as anti-Semitic.

The same was said, and continues to be said, of Alec Guinness’s performance in the 1948 film version.

While Ben Kingsley as Fagin continues the tradition, Harwood and Polanski (both Jewish) have emphasised his kindly behaviour towards Oliver as well as his ruthlessness in setting up Oliver to be killed.

Jamie Forman is less frightening than Robert Newton (in the 1948 version) or Oliver Reed (1968), but his Bill Sykes is no less menacing.

Leanne Rowe is younger than the usual part of Nancy and a reminder of how young girls were trapped in prostitution at that time.

A fine group of British character actors fill out the supporting roles, chosen not for their film star appearance.

Rather, the contrary, many of them look quite eccentric, even grotesque – which Dickens would have liked.

While the film has a PG rating and many of us saw Lean’s film when we were young, the subject matter and some of the treatment as well as the violence at the end might make parents wary about whether younger children might be frightened by it.

It is meant to be a compliment to Polanski’s talent in bringing Dickens to life to say that they might well be frightened.

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