Another adaptation of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist? From Roman Polanski, the guy who directed Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist?? Wha...?
Yeah, that was my initial reaction. But the filmmaker explained his reasons quite succinctly when he said "I wanted to make a movie for my kids to see." And who's going to argue with logic like that? Some actors do Cheaper by the Dozen 2 "for their kids," so Mr. Polanski earns points for digging the classics, even the ones that have been turned into movies every 24 months for the past 50 years.
The story, as anyone over the age of 12 probably knows by now, follows a young orphan named Oliver Twist who gets into all sorts of scrapes and grungy adventures in 1830's London. From his early incarceration in a dank and gloomy orphanage to the street-life freedom afforded by his new "friendship" with folks like The Artful Dodger and Fagin, king of the urchins, Oliver maintains a noble heart and a sweet disposition ... no matter how nasty things might get.
Boasting superlative art direction, some gorgeous cinematography, pitch-perfect costumes, and all the aesthetic goodies that you'd expect from a high-end Dickens adaptation, Oliver Twist pretty much reeks with a filmmaker's care and painstaking attention to detail. As it's been at least 15 years since I studied the source material, I'll leave Polanski's "textual deviations" to the experts, but I can say this: Mr. Polanski has put together one dazzlingly realistic-looking rendition of the rundown London of the mid-1800's.
Bolstered by a stellar cast (Ben Kingsley, Jamie Foreman, and Edward Hardwicke make the strongest impressions), a reverent (but not slavish) affection for the source material, and a screenplay that really seems to understand the themes and morals of the original story, this might not be the most unique or colorful adaptation of Twist you'll ever see (it's not a musical and it's not a Disney version starring dogs), but it just might supplant David Lean's 1948 version as the one that students turn to for a 2-hour study guide.
Video: The film is presented in a lush and lovely anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which really draws attention to Polanski's compositions, the stunning set design, and all sorts of visual wonders.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in your choice of English or French. Rachel Portman's score wavers between playful and moody quite smoothly, and audiophiles will most likely really enjoy what's offered here.
Extras: No commentary track here, but there is a trio of seriously excellent featurettes to be enjoyed. No sort of EPK fluff-stuff here, as the pieces were handled by the digital deity known as Laurent Bouzereau.
Twist by Polanski is a rather excellent 28-minute making-of featurette in which Roman Polanski discusses the whys and hows of this umpteenth adaptation, and is joined by interview participants like screenwriter Ronald Harwood, producer Robert Benmussa, actors Ben Kingsley and Jamie Foreman, and several others. All the bases are covered here, from the adapting to the casting to the shooting and the editing.
The Best of Twist runs about 18 minutes and focuses exclusively on the production design, the costumes, the cinematography, and all the elaborate craftsmanship that went into the film. Interview participants include Roman Polanski, Ronald Harwood, production designer Allan Starski, costume designer Anna Sheppard, and cinematographer Pawel Edelman.
Kidding with Oliver Twist is 5 minutes spent with young Barney Clark as he reads us some journal entries from his time on the set. Short and sweet.
The extras are rounded off by a collection of trailers for Fun with Dick and Jane, The Pink Panther, The Da Vinci Code, Open Season, and The Baxter.
I'm certainly no expert on the works of Charles Dickens, and I approached Oliver Twist knowing that several film critics didn't have much patience for this particular adaptation, but I think the film works exceedingly well, all things considered. I'd be very curious to hear what the "hardcore" Dickens fans think of Polanski's take on this classic story, because it sure felt legit to me.