Legendary film director Roman Polanski got in touch with his Jewish roots in his last film, the Holocaust drama The Pianist – and won himself an Oscar into the bargain. Three years on, and he's followed it up with another project with a Jewish theme – this time, it's Charles Dickens' classic Oliver Twist that he's bringing to the screen.
This story's been filmed several times before, most famously as the musical Oliver! in the 60s – but if you're expecting big song and dance numbers in Polanski's version, then you're going to be disappointed. For this is a by-the-book adaptation of the Dickens tale, about Oliver, young orphan boy who falls into the clutches of Fagin and his den of thieves. He is eventually rescued by a rich man who wants to adopt him – but Fagin, who is in the pay of the evil Bill Sykes, is determined to get Oliver back before he spills the beans on his pickpocketing past and gets them all into trouble.
Fagin – the Jewish character – was memorably played by Ron Moody in the musical version, and here Ben Kingsley (who has Jewish heritage himself) takes over the role.
In the original novel, Fagin is referred to as 'the Jew' on numerous occasions – and accusations of anti-Semitism have been levelled at the book since it was first published over 160 years ago. But here Fagin's
Jewishness is never actually mentioned, suggesting Polanski has found a way to tell this story without stooping to the usual stereotypes associated with Dickens' work.
Although Fagin is as unpleasant as ever, Kingsley gives him the same kind of human side that Al Pacino gave to Shylock in the recent film of The Merchant Of Venice – he's more of a pathetic character than
anything else. It's a great performance, that gets to the heart of Fagin without turning him into a pantomime villain.
This isn't the best adaptation of Oliver Twist by any means, but Polanski makes it enjoyable – while some adaptations of classic novels can be boring, this one isn't, and the story remains compelling even though the film is nearly two and a quarter hours long. A great introduction to Oliver Twist for those who don't know the story, and even if you do know the story it's worth seeing.