It always seems as though it would be simple to make a film of a Dickens novel; so much happens, mostly through open confrontation, the events pile one on top of another, there are so many moments of openly-expressed love or hate, and so few interior monologues or hidden motives to reveal. You just point your camera and go; it's all laid out in front of you.
But Dickens is too easily seen as caricature: the pure of heart against the malign, the reliance on forced coincidences, the temptation to hammer one's moral point home. Instead, the power of a Dickens film depends on a great director working with actors of subtlety and range, who will then let the story emerge from within and evoke a response from each of us.
Roman Polanski, who himself had a Dickensian childhood, has adapted "Oliver Twist" so well that even those who know the novel by heart will feel the pain and power of the story as though for the first time. He has rightly decided that Oliver is more acted-upon than acting, and his choice of the lovely but passive 11-year-old Barney Clark for the role gives us the chance to both empathize and identify with the boy. We feel for him and see a part of ourselves in him at the same time.
Polanski's other key casting decisions are at least as good. Ben Kingsley as Fagin keeps himself well out of the range of caricature, making us see him as a man who does more than exploit his boys; he cares for them, he has goodness in him, he teaches them as well. Jamie Foreman as the unredeemable Bill Sykes revels in the role without ever losing believability. We frankly fear and hate him. Leanne Rowe, as Sykes's consort and prostitute Nancy, who makes the story's one crucial decision, is completely open to us throughout. And Harry Eden as the Dodger, the flamboyant but merciless criminal who triggers so much of what happens in the story and yet stays above the fray, is a miracle in the part.
Polanski has wisely omitted the anti-Semitic theme that swirls around Fagin in the novel, and in doing so ends up enriching the character. He lets the novel's events play out in accurately etched small, dark rooms, alleys and cobbled streets. People climb endless stairs, sit uncomfortably on hard chairs or frame beds; we in the audience overhear the dialogue rather than have it spoken to us. In "The Pianist" Polanski showed us the Warsaw ghetto in the heart of the Holocaust; we were privy to one of the defining and heartbreaking moments in the history of mankind. Here in "Oliver Twist" he has turned a young person's novel into a masterpiece that will stay with us for a long time.