Oliver Twist (Roman Polanski’s)
Destitute orphans, deplorable workhouses and deviant masters are all subjects Charles Dickens seemed compelled to write about in his novels.
The context for his story of Oliver Twist is no different. Abandoned as a young child, Oliver (Barney Clark) has grown up in the harsh conditions of an English orphanage. Yet he has managed to become well mannered and gentle. On his tenth birthday, he is dutifully marched into the workhouse where he and countless other children pick apart ropes to be recycled for the sake of the glorious British Navy.
Starving from a lack of affection and food, he pleads with the kitchen staff for some more of the pitiful gruel the hungry children are fed. But his request is met only with sharp words and a swinging stick. Appalled by the boy's apparent impertinence, the portly administrators of the facility take leave of their opulent meal just long enough to sentence the boy to another form of hard employment.
Sent to work with a mortician (Michael Heath), Oliver is subjected to the ridicule and abuse of an older apprentice who is only too happy to have someone younger to bully around. After days of ill treatment, Oliver is fed up and steals away, heading for streets of London.
Once he reaches his destination, the new arrival is promptly befriended by a street urchin. Following the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) through rat-infested alleys, Oliver is invited into an apartment where he meets a boisterous bunch of boys and their boss, Fagin (Ben Kingsley). Happy to welcome a new recruit, Fagin spends the next few days teaching Oliver the art of pick pocketing while the other boys smoke pipes, down liquor and play cards. However, there is something in the forsaken child that makes him hang back when it comes to actually carrying out the crime.
Set in the bleak surroundings of London's working class poor, the script follows Oliver as he tries to disengage himself from a life of unsolicited delinquency. Unfortunately Fagin and his partner Bill (Jamie Foreman) aren't eager to let the lad get away. Afraid he may squeal on them, they apply needless force, threatening Oliver with a loaded pistol and mercilessly beating to death another character who intervenes on the boy's behalf. Their shoddy treatment of the other homeless juveniles includes routine slaps and rough pushes. Yet even in these uninviting conditions, Oliver remains innately good.
While Roman Polanski's interpretation of Oliver is a sullen one, the film portrays well the appalling conditions of the menial workers who labored in the shadow of England's upper classes. For teens and older children, this tale may present an interesting twist to the grand images of life in London.