The film was preceded by numerous adaptations of the Dickens book, including several feature films, three television movies, two miniseries, and a stage musical that became an Academy Award-winning film.
In the 1800s, young orphan (Oliver Twist) is forcibly brought to a workhouse in an unidentified town In England on his ninth birthday. He and the other resident children are treated poorly and given very little food. Facing starvation, the boys select Oliver through a lottery to ask for more food at the next meal, which he does. This results in Oliver being chastised, and the workhouse officials, who are wealthy, well-fed, hypocritical men, decide to get rid of him. After nearly being sold as an apprentice to a cruel chimney sweep, Oliver is sent to Mr. Sowerberry, a coffin-maker, whose wife and senior apprentice take an instant dislike to the newcomer. After more poor treatment, Oliver snaps and attacks Noah, the snotty older apprentice, for having insulted his mother. Noah howled instantly and brought Mrs. Sowerberry and Charlotte rushing in to drag Oliver away and lock him in the cold dark cellar. The Violent behavior of the orphan was duly brought to the notice of Mr. Sowerberry and also Mr. Bumble. Oliver was beaten, and knowing his life with the Sowerberrys will only get worse, he escapes on foot early the next morning.
With little food, Oliver determines to walk 70 miles to London. After he collapses from hunger and exhaustion, a kindly old woman gives him food and lodgings for the night. After a week of travel, he arrives at the city, barefoot and penniless. He meets Jack Dawkins, or "The Artful Dodger," a boy-thief who takes Oliver to his home and hideout at Saffron Hill that he shares with many other young pickpockets and their eccentric elderly leader, Fagin. Soon, Oliver is being groomed to join their gang. On his first outing with the pickpockets, two of the boys steal a man’s handkerchief and Oliver is framed. However he is proven innocent by an eyewitness, and the owner of the handkerchief (the wealthy Mr. Brownlow) takes pity on Oliver, who had collapsed from a fever in the courtroom. Brownlow, believing that Oliver is innocent, informally adopts him, giving him new clothes and the promise of a good education. However, while out running an errand for Brownlow, Oliver is forcibly returned to the pickpocket gang by Fagin’s associate, the evil Bill Sikes, and the young prostitute Nancy (who is in a complex and abusive relationship with Sikes). Fagin and Sikes worried that Oliver would "peach," and tell the authorities about their criminal activity. Oliver is put under supervision until Bill Sikes discovers the boy’s connection to the rich Mr. Brownlow. During midnight, Sikes and his accomplice, Toby Crackit, force Oliver to aid them in robbing Brownlow’s house. They are discovered and Oliver is wounded in a brief shootout between Brownlow and Sikes. As the three escape, Bill decides to murder Oliver to ensure his silence, but falls into a nearby river before he can take action.
Sikes survives his near-drowning, but is confined to bed with a heavy fever. Fagin, despite treating Oliver kindly, remains crime-focused and plots with Sikes to kill Oliver when Sikes has recovered. Nancy has a maternal love for Oliver and does not want to see him hurt, but she is controlled by the abusive Sikes. She drugs Bill, and goes to Brownlow’s house where she arranges to have him meet her on London Bridge at midnight so she can provide information about Oliver. At the meeting, Nancy cautiously reveals that Oliver is staying with Fagin, and that the authorities will easily find them. Brownlow leaves to call the police. The Artful Dodger, who had been sent by a suspicious Fagin to spy on Nancy, had heard everything and is bullied by Bill Sikes to give up the information. Sikes is furious at Nancy’s betrayal, and brutally beats her to death in their apartment.
The next day, information about Oliver and Fagin appear in the newspaper, along with Nancy’s murder and Sikes is a suspect. Sikes’s ever-present dog, Bullseye, is a dead giveaway to his identity. After unsuccessfully trying to kill the dog, Sikes takes up residence with Toby Crackit. Fagin, Oliver, and the boys are hiding there too, after escaping their previous location before the police could find it. Bullseye escapes his master’s cruelty, and leads a group of police and locals to the group’s hideout. Eventually, Dodger, outraged at Sikes for killing the good-hearted Nancy, reveals their location to authorities. Bill Sikes takes Oliver onto the roof, knowing they won't shoot if the boy is with him. When trying to scale the building using a rope, Sikes, distracted by his dog, loses his footing and accidentally hangs himself to death.
Some time later, Oliver is living comfortably with Mr. Brownlow again. Fagin was arrested for his pick pocketing actions, and Oliver wishes to visit him in jail. Brownlow takes him to the prison, where they find Fagin ranting and wailing in his cell. Oliver is distraught at Fagin’s fate, as he had been something of a father figure to him. Oliver tells Fagin "You were kind to me," but soon, their bond breaks when a policeman initially tells Oliver to leave, thinking that Fagin can play tricks on the boy's innocent mind, and wanting to escape execution. As Mr. Brownlow escorts a tearful Oliver to his own carriage, gallows are being set up in the courtyard. Townspeople begin to gather to watch Fagin’s execution, while Mr Brownlow and Oliver leave to start their new lives afresh.Ben Kingsley as FaginJamie Foreman as Bill SikesBarney Clark as Oliver TwistLeanne Rowe as NancyEdward Hardwicke as Mr. BrownlowHarry Eden as The Artful DodgerMark Strong as Toby CrackitFrances Cuka as Mrs. BedwinLewis Chase as Charley BatesMichael Heath as Mr. SowerberryMichelle Gomez as Mrs. SowerberryChris Overton as Noah ClaypoleJeremy Swift as Mr. BumblePaul Brooke as Mr. GrimwigIan McNeice as Mr. LimbkinsAlun Armstrong as Magistrate FangLiz Smith as Old WomanPatrick Godfrey as Bookseller
Production and adaptation
In Twist by Polanski, a bonus feature on the DVD release of the film, Roman Polanski discusses his decision to make yet another screen adaptation of the Dickens novel. Following The Pianist, he was anxious to make a film his children could enjoy. He realized nearly forty years had passed since Oliver Twist had been adapted for a feature film and felt it was time for a new version. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood, with whom he had collaborated on The Pianist, welcomed the opportunity to work on the first Dickens project in his career.
For authenticity, all scenes featuring pickpocket skills were choreographed by stage pickpocket James Freedman and magician Martyn Rowland
The film was shot in Prague, Beroun, and Žatec in the Czech Republic.
Like David Lean's 1948 film Oliver Twist and the writers of the stage musical Oliver!, Polanski and Harwood entirely omitted the Maylie family from their film. Like the musical, but unlike Lean, they also omitted Monks, as well as the entire subplot of a conspiracy to defraud Oliver of the inheritance money that his father left him. Oliver now has no origin, but is an anonymous orphan like the rest of Fagin's gang. (See more here.) To fill up the gap left by the absence of Monks and the Maylies, the film creates a subplot wherein Fagin's intentions toward Oliver become murderous and he plots with Sikes to actually kill the boy, which never happens in the novel.
The film received generally positive reviews.
A. O. Scott of The New York Times called it a "bracingly old-fashioned" film that "does not embalm its source with fussy reverence" but "rediscovers its true and enduring vitality." He added, "the look of the movie... is consistent with its interpretation of Dickens's worldview, which could be plenty grim but which never succumbed to despair. There is just enough light, enough grace, enough beauty, to penetrate the gloom and suggest the possibility of redemption. The script... is at once efficient and ornate, capturing Dickens's narrative dexterity and his ear for the idioms of English speech."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was similarly positive; he lauded the film as "visually exact and detailed without being too picturesque." Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle praised it as a "grounded and unusually matter-of-fact adaptation," continuing, "Polanski does justice to Dickens' moral universe, in which the motives and worldview of even the worst people are made comprehensible."
Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly graded the film B+ and commented, "On the face of it, Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist is in the tradition of every faithful Oliver Twist ever filmed — a photogenic, straightforward, CliffsNotes staging of Charles Dickens' harrowing story... Yet precisely because this is by Roman Polanski, it's irresistible to read his sorrowful and seemingly classical take, from a filmmaker known as much for the schisms in his personal history as for the lurches in his work, as something much more personal and poignant."
However, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone rated the film two out of four stars, calling it "drab and unfeeling" while "lacking the Polanski stamp." He further felt Barney Clark's performance as Oliver was "bereft of personality." Todd McCarthy of Variety echoed Travers' sentiments about Clark, labelling him "disappointingly wan and unengaging," while writing that the film was "conventional, straighforward" and "a respectable literary adaptation, but [lacking] dramatic urgency and intriguing undercurrents."
In the UK press, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian opined that while "[Polanski's] Oliver Twist does not flag or lose its way and is always watchable, the book's original power and force have not been rediscovered." Philip French of The Observer wrote that the film was "generally disappointing, though by no means badly acted," and alleged that it lacked "any serious point of view about individuality, society, community."
The film has a 'fresh' 60 percent score on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus that 'Polanski's version of Dickens' classic won't have audiences asking for more because while polished and directed with skill, the movie's a very impersonal experience.' Review aggregate website Metacritic further assigned the film a score of 65, signifying 'generally favorable reviews.'
Sony Pictures released the film on DVD on 24 January 2006. It is in anamorphic widescreen format with audio tracks and subtitles in English and French. Bonus features include Twist by Polanski, in which the director reflects on the making of the film; The Best of Twist, which includes interviews with production designer Allan Starski, costume designer Anna B. Sheppard, cinematographer Paweł Edelman, editor Hervé de Luze, and composer Rachel Portman; and Kidding with Oliver Twist, which focuses on the young actors in the cast.