Oliver Twist (PG)

Please sir, this needs a bit more
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The Independent Culture

The two famous movie versions of Oliver Twist have taken markedly different paths: David Lean's 1948 film, following his Great Expectations (1946), is a ravenously dark Gothic of angled shadows and light in which one senses destitution lapping at the corners of the screen.

Carol Reed's 1968 musical Oliver! distanced the misery of the book through its jaunty and sometimes beautiful songs, yet still spiked its high-kicking jollity with an authentic terror. I should know: it was the first film I saw at the cinema, aged about five, and Oliver Reed's wonderfully saturnine Bill Sykes, the one character who never sang, remains (along with school dinners) one of my earliest memories of pure childish dread.

Indeed, when you consider what themes Oliver Twist addresses - the anguish of motherlessness, the brutality of adults, the wonderment and peril of childhood - the surprise is that Steven Spielberg never got involved with it.

Instead, the responsibility for this generation's Oliver has fallen to Roman Polanski, a man who really has known the traumas of separation from loved ones, violent separation at that.

When he was seven he escaped the Krakow ghetto during the Nazi liquidation of the Jews; his parents, on the other hand, were deported to Auschwitz. Then there was the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family in 1969. What depths of viciousness might he not see in this tale of orphanhood and innocence on the rack?

As it turns out, Polanski's take on Dickens is not nearly as extravagant as one might have expected. Granted, there is pity in the early scenes of Oliver's consignment to the workhouse, where he slaves and starves alongside rows of other pale young waifs; there is indignation at the pompous Bumble (Jeremy Swift) and the brutish Noah Claypole (Chris Overton), whose bullying finally compels Oliver to flee to London; and there is bemusement at his ingenuous gratitude towards Fagin (Ben Kingsley), who he initially believes has adopted him out of kindheartedness.

But these hardships are documented in a fairly matter-of-fact way, as though Polanski were determined to serve the progress of the plot rather than the spirit of Dickens; instead of the exuberant flourish of, say, "Food, Glorious Food", we get the bland gloop of Rachel Portman's score ladled over everything.

When Oliver is rescued from the magistrate's court by the kindly Mr Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) and he first wakes up to the possibilities of a happy life, I longed for this change of atmosphere to be heralded by street-traders belting out their cheery tune "Who Will Buy?" The mere sight of the boy's new suit of clothes and haircut feels somewhat inadequate in comparison.

The problem with adapting Oliver Twist is that so much of it feels locked inside quotation marks: there's an almost pageant-like quality to its unfolding. Polanski is undaunted by the familiarity.

Where other directors might have been tempted into hyperbole and exaggeration, he and his production designer Allan Starski cleave to an unobtrusive realism. The colour palette is mostly confined to slate greys and seaweed browns. This tends to work better by night than by day, when the cobbled streets and shop fronts of early Victorian London look a little too spruce (the film was shot on a huge studio back lot in Prague). The nocturnal scenes, however, with the glimmer of gaslight picking out hurrying silhouettes and muddied thoroughfares, reinforce the sense of menace and mysteriousness that Dickens located in the city.

Ronald Harwood's screenplay falls into step with this realistic vision, resisting the lure of anachronism and retaining the period cockney locution of substituting "w"s for "v"s, as in "wery good" and "you slinkin' warmint".

He has also mercifully ditched the original backstory of Oliver's parentage, the subtext of which essentially ran: Phew, the kid was middle-class all along!

Where one might have predicted a softening is in the portrayal of Fagin, or "the Jew" as he is known in the novel, yet Ben Kingsley hasn't made any great physical departure from the hunched and hook-nosed character played by Alec Guinness in 1948 and Ron Moody 20 years later. Kingsley is terrifically compelling in the part, which, despite being halfway to parody before it begins, has a perverse human warmth: here is a man moved virtually to tears by his own avarice.

Eleven-year-old Barney Clark is fine as Oliver, so too Leanne Rowe as Nancy, and all that's missing is some chemistry between them: when Nancy pretends to be Oliver's sister as she kidnaps him on the street, we need to feel a sense of betrayal on both their parts, for her kindliness seems to have taken her by surprise as much as him.

The film's real weakness, however, is one I would never have imagined Polanski succumbing to. Late in life Dickens, on his reading tours, had taken to enacting the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes before startled audiences, and in a letter wrote of one performance: "I murdered the girl from Oliver Twist last night in a highly successful and bloodthirsty manner".

One can hear the relish in his voice. It might seem an incredible complaint to make in an age when mainstream cinema is steeped in gore, but Polanski, the man who gave us Repulsion, Chinatown and a seriously bloody Macbeth, has soft-pedalled the violence of the book. Even if Jamie Foreman is a little cartoonish as Sykes, the agony of what will happen to Nancy should be always before us, and the moment of her doom requires a dose of Grand Guignol.

Instead, the camera looks meekly away as Sykes lays about her with his club. Perhaps the producers were desperate to secure a PG certificate, or else Polanski had exhausted his darker instincts after The Pianist. Either way, this story of Victorian malefactors and murderers will not quicken the pulse, still less scare anyone. Despite its great potential, they've played this Twist too straight.