On the face of it, Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, with a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, is in the tradition of every faithful Oliver Twist ever filmed — a photogenic, straightforward, CliffsNotes staging of Charles Dickens’ harrowing story about a penniless orphan negotiating among cruel and occasionally good adults in a world that has no time for children, and even less for penniless orphans. The London that Polanski reconstructs (in Prague) is a fetid, heartless place that must be navigated by wits, not maps. And as if to prove it, the director propels his action up and down stairs, through dank streets, and even across rooftops, often in the dark or in the rain. The grimy, pint-size pickpockets Oliver falls in with have the crazed, hardened look of children ripped from childhood too soon, and their scaly handler, the sniveling Fagin (Ben Kingsley), is appropriately decayed, all bent of nose (with Semitic intimations) and mossy of teeth. When Fagin clutches Oliver, played by angelic-looking newcomer Barney Clark, in a gnarled gesture of possessiveness (and, in Kingsley’s nuanced portrayal, warped love), the contrast between the rotten ”Jewishness” of the old man and the Christian luminosity of the boy couldn’t be more acute.
Yet precisely because this is by Roman Polanski, it’s irresistible to read his sorrowful and seemingly classical take, from a filmmaker known as much for the schisms in his personal history as for the lurches in his work, as something much more personal and poignant. As in his previous movie, The Pianist (also written by Harwood), Polanski here considers the case of a person shaped (or is it misshaped?) by a fate over which he has no control. Like the musician played by Adrien Brody, Oliver survives by chance. Some people, Polanski darkly observes, are good, others are bad. But most, like Fagin, are mutants, strangled combinations of both.