Lyrical Stories of Poverty: Dickens' 'Oliver Twist' Is Brought to the Screen; 'The Weeping Meadow' Chronicles a Painful Time in Greek History

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Oliver Twist is early Dickens. Comic exaggerations are often too wordy in these works, yet they retain emotional power as a strong attack on society's widespread indifference to poverty. Charles Dickens knew about injustice to the poor from his own experience, and director Roman Polanski, whose recent "The Pianist" brought him deserved high praise, was probably attracted to the book by memories of his own painful childhood in Poland during World War II.

Dickens has always been tempting to filmmakers. David Lean made a fine black-and-white "Oliver Twist" in 1948. But the comic language of the novels easily evaporates onscreen and many directors would prefer to avoid his scenes of extreme pathos. Dickens. however, is clear about his purpose: "I wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last." In 11-year-old Barney Clark, Mr. Polanski found a boy who is both convincingly innocent and plucky, neither hardened nor made cynical by injustice and ill treatment.

Ronald Harwood's screenplay intelligently cuts away much narrative fat, eliminating the coincidences that finally assign a respectable parentage to Oliver but leaving a large role to Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and his gang of young pickpockets, led by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden). Indeed, the gang is always so high-spirited that some young spectators might be tempted to join them, and even Fagin, though given a false nose and greedy fingers, is seen at the end as intending a kindness to Oliver. Despite Fagin's caricatured features, the epithet "Jew"--repeatedly employed in the novel, reflecting the anti-Semitism of the time--is never employed.

Mr. Polanski is especially successful in suggesting the crowded and dangerous streets of London (though the photography of Pawel Edelman was done in Prague). He captures the spirit of Dickensian caricature, revealing the wonderfully hypocritical faces of Oliver's tormentors in scene after scene. Particularly memorable is the dinner at which the parish board gorges on beef Wellington and fine wine while predicting Oliver's end on the gallows for daring to request a second bowl of gruel. Photography, lighting and casting combine to underline the contrast.

Mr. Polanski makes good use of Barney Clark's delicate features as Oliver and elicits a moving performance from Leanne Rowe as Nancy, as well as a frightening one from Jamie Foreman as Bill Sykes. Mr. Kingsley conveys a nuanced exhibitionism as Fagin, and Edward Hardwicke makes Mr. Brownlow a benevolent protector of the longsuffering young hero. Children will be drawn to this story of an orphan boy victimized by fate, but the very young should be spared the brutal murder of Nancy by the villainous Sykes.

The director remains faithful to the author's intent to produce a document of social protest while retaining the essential warm-heartedness of the original. Although I suspect Dickens himself would find the scenes of terror too mild and the comedy too restrained, the result is a well-crafted movie that should both entertain and prod everyone in the family to think about poverty. …