It doesn't take much to play Oliver Twist—soulful eyes, a pretty face, and a beleaguered-but-hopeful expression pretty much sums up the character of Charles Dickens' most famous orphan. Born into a 19th-century British workhouse and thrust at age 10 into a life of slavery and crime, he's a cipher victimized by more dynamic and nuanced characters, who bounce him between them like a hapless pinball. Dickens' rags-to-riches novel Oliver Twist has been adapted to film and television more than 20 times already, and each new version has to grapple with the same problem: The central character doesn't feel much like a character, and each adaptation has to find a compensatory center.
Director Roman Polanski looks for his in Ben Kingsley, who cackles, gibbers, and generally hams it up in his role as Fagin, the greedy old man who absorbs Oliver (played with the requisite blank-faced soul by Barney Clark) into a stable of underage pickpockets whom he dispatches to the streets of London to do his dirty work. But Kingsley is one of very few lively things about Polanski's plodding, by-the-numbers Oliver Twist. And in this dreary setting, he comes across more as a desperate clown than a saving grace, which makes it all the more awkward that no one else is clowning along with him.
Polanski is no stranger to adaptations; his last film, 2002's The Pianist (which earned him the Best Director Oscar), capped a long career of acclaimed books-on-film, including Rosemary's Baby, 1979's Thomas Hardy adaptation Tess, and the graphically perverse Bitter Moon. But Polanski shows no particular engagement with Oliver Twist, and no interest in bringing it to anything more than a turgid half-life. Pianist cinematographer Pawel Edelman films it all in rich earth tones and fussy detail, and every frame looks like some gorgeously oppressive, low-lit Rembrandt painting, but the story moves with paint-drying slowness, and most of the cast seems to be posing rather than acting. Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood sticks closely to Dickens' original text, striking only some of the more far-fetched plot twists that gave the original book a contrived, almost fairy-tale quality. But maybe Polanski's Oliver could use some magic. Instead, it's flat, joyless, and artificially proper, unobjectionable but unexceptional as well. Like Oliver himself, it seems hollow, no matter how dutifully it goes through the motions.