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Don’t be surprised that the provocative veteran filmmaker Roman Polanski has made a new version of Charles Dickens’ famous novel, Oliver Twist: it’s a story with which he’s all too sadly familiar, say his fellow filmmakers.

As a combination of fantasy and historical truth, Roman Polanski believes Charles Dickens’s saga of the good-hearted English lad eager to better himself can’t be beaten: “This is a Dickensian tale in the truest sense, which means it is exuberant, intriguing and timeless. And it’s full of incident that is constantly surprising.” But it is also a tale that rings with an awful familiarity for Polanski. Indeed, 11 year old English /Australian newcomer Barney Clark who plays Oliver, looks a little like Polanski might have looked as a child, with his air of melancholy and quiet determination.

"dramatic urgency"

The young Polanski was a scrappy child manoeuvring the awfulness of the Polish ghetto in World War II. Personal experience, then, informed his rollicking retelling of Oliver Twist as much as it gave The Pianist (his Oscar winning war film set in Poland) dramatic urgency.

For those unfamiliar with this classic story, it’s about young orphan Oliver Twist (Barney Clark), who runs away from the dreadful workhouse and makes for London, where he is taken in hand by Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), and his gang of youths who work the streets and lanes, picking pockets for the villainous and scheming old Fagin (Ben Kingsley). When a simple trick goes wrong, Oliver is blamed and hauled up in front of the unkind magistrate, where he meets the kind hearted Mr Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), who recognizes in Oliver an innocent spirit. But Oliver is dragged back into the gutter by his old cronies, and of them all, Nancy (Leanne Rowe) is the one whose conscience won’t allow any harm to come him, especially from the wicked Bill Sikes (Jamie Foreman). But Nancy’s kindness is rewarded by a terrible revenge and Oliver’s very life is in danger as Sikes tries to evade the police.

Says Polanski’s producing partner Alain Sarde, “Roman is telling the story through the eyes of Oliver. Just as Wladislaw Szpilman’s (Adrien Brody) story was a fight for survival in The Pianist, so it is a fight for this young boy to survive against what appear to be insurmountable odds, firstly in the austere surroundings of the Workhouse and then in the seedy side of London’s underworld. And Roman is at his best when he is dealing with characters that have to fight against adversity.”

Jamie Foreman, who plays Bill Sykes, agrees. “What Roman and Dickens have in common was that they shared the same kind of childhood. Dickens had a very unhappy childhood; his father was a scoundrel who was always in trouble. Dickens had to survive the best way he could. Roman’s life story is very well-documented with the tragic childhood he had in the ghettoes of World War II. There is a simpatico there straight away. The more I worked on the project, the more I understood Roman. I saw more and more of Oliver in him. He’s still this wonderful imaginative child himself, even at this stage of his life. To come to this project was inevitability to him.”

Ben Kingsley, who plays Fagin, thinks this particular combination of filmmaker and English novelist was a fitting one. “Roman has such an irony and a wit and a perception of human behaviour and human types and human categories that he’s able to caricature those extraordinary characters from the novel,” says Kingsley. “I immediately felt that Roman could spend time with Charles Dickens and have a wonderful evening and a great laugh. It’s no good having a pedestrian director directing Shakespeare when he couldn’t actually spend five minutes in a pub with Shakespeare – he would be totally crushed and intellectually intimidated.

"intellectual vigour, confidence, stamina and curiosity"

“You have to have a director who still has this intellectual vigour, confidence, stamina and curiosity. And here’s Roman, newly awarded an Oscar for his brilliant re-examination of the Holocaust through one man’s eyes in The Pianist, still at the peak of his powers.”

Kingsley’s portrayal of Fagin is a rich mix of wicked and wickeder, moments of tenderness towards Oliver notwithstanding, a pointer to Polanski’s approach to the story’s dark underbelly. “I was never afraid of the dark part of Oliver as far as the young audience is concerned because they love dark stories. The fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen are quite frightening. At the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of humour in every Charles Dickens book, a great deal of irony and sarcasm, and that appeals to me very much. And I think it appeals to children, within the scope of their comprehension.”

Published June 15, 2006

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