You might expect director Roman Polanski to feel a kinship with Oliver Twist, the orphan hero of Charles Dickens' classic 1838 novel. During World War II, Polanski's mother died in a concentration camp, leaving him adrift in the Warsaw ghetto. He instilled that desperation into The Pianist, the 2002 film that won him an Oscar. American justice has been less forgiving than Hollywood. Polanski, 72, has been a fugitive since 1978, when he fled to Europe after being convicted of statutory rape. Polanski knows from the pain of separation. So why, then, is his Oliver Twist so drab and unfeeling, so lacking the Polanski stamp? As played by Barney Clark, Oliver seems bereft of personality. And Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger — the punk prince of London pickpockets — lacks the comic spirit to animate the role. Sir Carol Reed's 1968 musical version, Oliver!, had more grit. What life there is in the film comes from Sir Ben Kingsley as Fagin, the Jewish criminal who instructs Oliver and the other orphans in the art of the con. Gone is the Semitic caricature that blighted Alec Guinness' portrayal in David Lean's still-definitive 1948 film of the book. Kingsley brings a wrenching pathos to Fagin's final scene, going mad in prison where Oliver comes to forgive him. Strangely, Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood save their sympathy for a man who abetted a child's murder. It's unlikely audiences will be echoing a ving Oliver's most famous line: "Please, sir, I want some more."
From The Archives Issue 405: September 29, 1983