There have been well over 20 different film versions of this, one of Charles Dickens’ most famous tales. Even in the last few years there have been high-profile television versions produced on both sides of the Atlantic; the British had Robert Lindsay as the perennial favourite Fagin, the American’s had Richard Dreyfuss and a then unknown Elijah Wood as the youthful master thief the Artful Dodger.
Yet despite all these many different takes on what is, at its heart, a fairly simple story of the desire to be loved and human nature, the best remains David Lean’s 1948 take, with Alec Guinness as a deliciously over the top Fagin, and Carol Reed’s much-loved 1968 musical version.
But the very simplicity of the tale of the little orphan boy’s attempts to make it in the world has been hugely overplayed in the innumerable adaptations of the last few decades. Dickens may have dreamed up larger than life, almost stereotypical characters on occasion, but he remains one of the masters of the storytelling craft, and his true genius lies as much in his beneath-the-surface complexity and, in particular, his social awareness as his ability to spin a yarn.
Much the same could be said of director Roman Polanski. It’s often easy to forget that this is the man responsible for the ground-breakingly complex and in many ways Dickensian Chinatown. So often he is remembered for the much-parodied horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, the equally gruesome murder of his wife by the Manson Family and the conviction for statutory rape that has forced him to flee America for the rest of his life.
In 2002, after two decades of comparative film-making mediocrity, Polanski proved he still had it in him with the multiple Oscar-winning The Pianist. While his take on Oliver Twist may be neither as deep nor as original as that intimate portrayal of the Holocaust, nor as likely to win awards, it nonetheless shows that Polanski’s long-overdue return to form was not a mere one-off.
There still remains the question of precisely what the point is of doing a more serious version of this incredibly well-known classic when David Lean’s 1948 film is so perfectly realised. Is Sir Ben Kingsley up to bettering Sir Alec Guinness as Fagin? Well, he’s certainly up to equalling him. Are child actors Barney Clark (as Oliver) and Harry Eden (The Artful Dodger) able to avoid the usual cringe-making awfulness of kiddies on screen? Pretty much.
There of course is no point in yet another remake of such a famous and well-loved story other than that it is famous and well-loved. And this is a wonderfully skilled new version of it to appeal to a whole new generation – after all, musicals aren’t for everyone, and Lean’s version is in black and white, which many still seem to find off-putting. Polanski has provided a new, charming, faithful and beautifully-shot Oliver Twist which should keep us all entertained for years to come.