Oliver Twist

Directed by Roman Polanski

Distributed by Sony Pictures

4 Stars

When filming a seminal piece of English literature like Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” the conservative choice for a director is to keep the work as loyal to the source material as possible. The truly great directors, such as Roman Polanski, go a step beyond. These directors will never completely betray the original work, yet they give the film a signature feel, whether it is by altering the story to shed new light on the characters or simply creating a rich visual world for the characters to inhabit.

Polanski has proven his talent in the past, especially with his adaptation of “The Pianist” (2002), yet his latest film, the newest in a long line of “Twist” adaptations, isn’t quite perfect.

Nevertheless, the film is far from a complete failure. Through Polanski’s guidance, the audience is able to move along effortlessly from scene to scene through what truly seems like 19th-century England. His job is also made easier by the faithful and compact screenplay by Oscar-winner Ronald Harwood, who collaborated with Polanski on “The Pianist.”

The real problem is the stuffy acting by the majority of the cast. Barney Clark’s shaky performance as the orphaned title character makes the first third of the film difficult to watch at times. Although Clark exhibits some potential, his casting in such a key role for his first major film is a questionable decision by the casting director and Polanski alike.

The first bit of the movie begs to be held up by Oliver’s character, and Clark’s exaggeratedly sad eyes just don’t seem believable. Maybe he’s not mature enough as an actor (or as a kid) to express the pain felt by a young, unwanted orphan.

It’s not only Clark who’s having problems: most of the younger actors don’t quite fit, from the portrayal of the mean Noah Claypole to the clever Artful Dodger. Luckily for the audience, the narrative emphasis is taken off Oliver and the other children in favor of more complex characters like Fagin (Ben Kingsley), the leader of the pickpocket gang.

But the sometimes choppy acting should not deter theatergoers. First, for all its faults, it’s a great introduction to what may be one of the best stories in English literature, and it is worthwhile to those who cherish the classic. Second, the look of the film is incredible, in large part due to the brilliant production design of Allan Starski, veteran of “The Pianist” and “Schindler’s List.”

Everything, from the houses to the city streets to even the playing cards used by Oliver, is authentic to the time period. The costume design, done by Starski’s collaborator on the latter two films, is equally beautiful. Unlike the over-the-top designs that seem to be employed in films about the mid-19th century like “Gangs of New York,” the costumes in Oliver Twist seem like the genuine articles: the poor and rich appear authentically so.

The third and final reason to put up the money to see the film in theaters rather than on DVD lies in Kingsley’s absolutely remarkable portrayal as Fagin. There really is nothing like going to the theater to see a performance like his, where the collective audience is able to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of image, size, and character.

Words barely suffice to impart the subtlety and complexity that Kingsley puts into the role, from his affecting gaze to his deep nasal breathing. Instead of feeling like it’s just another actor performing a worn-out role, like Clark as Oliver, we believe Kingsley to be Fagin, straight from Dickens’ page. The majority of the time he’s filmed in close-up, his exaggeratedly ugly features filling the frame and initially startling the audience.

Still, there’s something about Kingsley’s Fagin that’s entirely accessible. Compared to the villainous Bill Sykes, he’ll only idly threaten the youngsters who work so hard for him, without the capacity for any real violence. He’s obsessed with treasure, yet he understands that the “greatest sin is ingratitude.” He’s misunderstood, seen as a villain by most, but at heart a decent man.

That could be why Polanski—notorious for fleeing America in 1978 to avoid a prison sentence for statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl—does such a great job of directing Kingsley’s criminal: perhaps in Fagin he sees a little bit of himself.