For most readers, the problem with Oliver Twist is Oliver Twist. Roman Polanski's 2005 film does nothing to solve the difficulty, and much to exacerbate it. Ronald Harwood, the scriptwriter, brutally pares away many of the characters and a number of subplots: Monks and the Maylies never appear; the Beadle vanishes after Oliver leaves the workhouse, and with him goes the story of Oliver's mother; Mr. Brownlow dwindles into a cipher; the Artful Dodger disappears after Fagin's capture. Moreover, Harwood and Polanski tamp down the Gothic qualities of characters like Fagin and Sykes. This leaves us with something approaching straightforward picaresque--one with a singularly passive protagonist. His walk to London aside, Oliver spends the entire film being carried, pulled, pushed, and generally manhandled; for all that he's the film's subject, he spends most of the time being an object.
Oliver's lack of self-propulsion, for lack of a better term, carries over into the rest of the film. There's never any urgency or intensity, even after Bill Sykes murders Nancy (one of the novel's most famous sections, terribly wasted here). Even the film's palette--autumnal greens, grays, and rusts--threatens to fade off the screen. And while Dickens adaptations frequently go overboard on the grotesques, Polanski perhaps plays them down a little too much. (Even the naturally Cruikshankian Alun Armstrong looks almost normal.) Matters are not appreciably helped by the acting; aside from Ben Kingsley, doing his best to emote through a haze of false nose, false hair, and false beard, even reliable performers like Edward Hardwicke (smothered behind Brownlow's whiskers) fail to leave an impression. Jamie Foreman doesn't work up the requisite menace for Bill Sykes, while Leanne Rowe yells rather unconvincingly as Nancy; the children, unfortunately, are uniformly weak performers.
The film has one more significant weakness: it's too sentimental. I'm aware that many still associate Dickens with proto-Hallmark card kitsch--Tiny Tim, Little Nell, etc., etc., etc.--but even ultra-weepy Dickens tends to come with a heavy dollop of bleakness. This is just as true of Oliver Twist, a novel in which exploiting children is hardly confined to the criminal underclass. By eliminating the Beadle's grotesque upward mobility, softening Fagin, and diminishing Bill Sykes, Polanski eliminates the dark counter-balance to the novel's more toothache-inducing moments. The film's emotional palette is as washed-out as its scenery. (It's symptomatic that Sykes' dog doesn't "das[h] out his brains" at the end.) Who is more sentimental here--Dickens or us?