Poor little Oliver Twist has had a long journey. There was the 1922 silent version with horror pro Lon Chaney starring as the pickpocket chief Fagin. A 1933 retelling featured 7-year-old Dickie Moore, a regular from Our Gang comedies. And in 1948, Alec Guinness created his own unforgettable Fagin.
The musical "Oliver!" prettied the story up a bit -- with the exception of Oliver Reed as the baddest Sikes ever. Fagin, played in that movie by Ron Moody, was a lovable rogue. He had the best songs, too. ("In this life/One thing counts/In the bank/Large amounts . . .")
To people most familiar with the musical, as many people are these days, Polanski's new "Oliver Twist" will come as a shock. Sure, you know the story is dark. But you may have forgotten how ugly it can be.
Polanski pulls no punches. His last movie was "The Pianist," the true tale about the Jewish virtuoso fleeing the Nazis. In a way, that film and this one are weirdly similar. They're both big dramas about a desperate person on the lam for no fault of his own, both blank spots in the middle of crazy, senseless surroundings.
"Oliver Twist" is stunning in its re-creation of Victorian England. It's like March in Buffalo -- perpetually heavy skies, cold rain. (Watch for the first time the sun comes out, after Oliver has fled the workhouse and is on his own on the path to London. It's striking.)
I was as wide-eyed as Oliver, taking it all in: the men in their long heavy coats, the women in their bonnets, the carriages trundling past, the rats, the dogs, the markets, the glimmer of St. Paul's Cathedral in the London fog.
You could argue that Polanski does nothing revolutionary. He simply tells the story. But that makes sense, because it's a whale of a tale.
And it's full of merciless, magnificent lines.
"Get up, or I'll strew your brains in the grass," snarls Bill Sikes, brandishing a loaded gun. Jamie Foreman, last seen in the gross British crime film "Layer Cake," creates a real creep here -- almost as scary as Oliver Reed was in "Oliver!" (Funny that the musical would have the worst Sikes.)
Then there's a great moment when Oliver's benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, tries to defend the little boy to a skeptical friend.
"He has a fever," Brownlow says.
"Bad people have fevers too," his friend answers. He recounts the story of a bad criminal. "He had three of them."
Barney Clark, our Oliver, is a sweet little boy -- pretty much the passive blank the story requires, but there's nothing smart-mouthed about him, which is a relief in this day and age. (Maybe those Victorians were on to something after all.)
As Fagin, Sir Ben Kingsley has a tough row to hoe. The character presents a problem, just the way Shylock does in "The Merchant of Venice," because it creates an unfair ethnic caricature that's harder to accept now than it was in Dickens' era.
People have written whole term papers on this subject, so I'll just say that people offended by Guinness' cruel, uncompromising 1948 Fagin will look more kindly toward Kingsley. He makes his chortling, scheming character lovable -- which doesn't make sense in a way, because Fagin is shown helping to plot Oliver's murder. It also makes the movie's ending a wrenching experience.
Do take kids to this movie. It's probably too upsetting for the under-12 set, but over 12, they'll be thrilled and enthralled. Most of the violence is suggested rather than seen. Furthermore, kids love a good story. And this one is good as, well, the dickens.
OLIVER TWIST Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)