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|Oliver Twist (2005)
by Doug Bentin
. . . – Workhouse-clearing Men,
Who, undisturbed by Feelings just or kind,
Would Parish-Boys to needy Tradesmen bind:
They in their want a trifling Sum would take,
And toiling Slaves of piteous Orphans make.
George Crabbe, “The Poor of the Borough, Letter XXII”What director Roman Polanski does better in this new reading of “Oliver Twist” than I remember ever seeing in any of its other screen adaptations is point up the ambiguities in the story. The poor and wretched are to be pitied and helped whenever possible, but they’re also to be feared and avoided. London is the glorious city where fortunes can be made, but it’s also the last stop on the downward journey to oblivion.
"A true Victorian horror story from Roman Polanski"
Thieves speak in mock elegance about friendship and trust, but turn on each other like cornered vermin when life or stolen goods are at risk. There is no redemption for the wicked. We never discover what the fate of the Artful Dodger is, but seeing him turn into another Fagin wouldn’t surprise us in the least.
Set during the time of its original serial publication—the 1830s—this is Charles Dickens’ famous tale of an orphan boy left to rot in a rural workhouse. When apprenticed to an undertaker, the lad runs away to London. There he meets a dexterous youth called The Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) who takes Oliver to meet Fagin (Ben Kingsley), a notorious fence and exploiter of children. Fagin and his truly lost boys intend to teach Oliver the art of picking pockets when human decency and the law—not by any means the same things in Dickens’ world—interfere.
Fagin and Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman) are among Dickens’ most famous villains, although Fagin has been softened into a lovable old rogue in some versions of the story, most notably Lionel Bart’s justly popular musical “Oliver!”. Sykes, a vicious thug who shows us what Fagin’s influence could have on a boy growing up to an adulthood of crime, is always performed with some degree of bestiality. Here, Foreman plays him as a force of pure, stupid brutality. There isn’t a hint of the charm that is sometimes found in underworld rascals. As John O’Hara, in many ways an American Dickens of his time, once noted in a short story, the words “rogue” and “rascal” suggest a certain twinkle-in-the-eye attraction to people who have never had any dealings with rogues and rascals. You can believe that what is said of Oliver has also been said of Sykes, that “he is born to hang.”
But Kingsley’s Fagin is the film’s centerpiece. It’s a brilliant performance, both physically and intellectually. Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have elected to retain the novel’s last glimpse of Fagin, in prison and raving, and this gives Kingsley reason to show us hints of Fagin’s mounting madness all along. We see that Fagin suffers from the same mental ills so many contemporary people adrift on the streets of urban centers do now, but like the canniest psychopaths he is able, almost always, to disguise his symptoms.
Dickens leaves Fagin in prison begging Oliver to help him escape. As he is led to the gallows, the jailors “ . . laid hands upon him, and disengaging Oliver from his grasp, held him back. He struggled with the power of desperation, for an instant; and then sent up cry upon cry that penetrated even those massive walls, and rang in their ears until they reached the open yard.”
This kind of scene, of course, gives Kingsley more than enough reason to make us both pity the man’s situation and rejoice at the release of Oliver from his clutches. Most films dealing with modern tales of villainy dispatch their bad guys in the end, but leave it to Dickens to make us feel that the universe has somehow, at least temporarily, been righted. We got the same satisfaction from Uncle Ralph’s suicide in “Nicholas Nickleby.”
Barney Clark is fine in the title role, although anyone playing Oliver is doomed by the strength of the villains to appear bloodless. Leanne Rowe is a believable Nancy, pretty enough to attract Sykes’ attention but not pretty enough to be taken away from him by someone even less ruthless. Edward Hardwicke is Mr. Brownlow, Oliver’s upper middle class rescuer, and is suitably noble.This new “Oliver Twist” makes a very good starting point for a discussion with your older pre-teens about the ambiguities in human nature and society. It’s also an example of how to adapt a classic novel into a thoughtful motion picture.
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originally posted: 10/21/05 17:01:56
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.