Oliver Twist (2005)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/30/05 00:01:12

"A new Roman Polanski film-you know, for kids!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Throughout his long, varied and distinguished career, Roman Polanksi has long delighted in confounding viewers by throwing them curve balls in the wake of his occasional critical and commercial triumphs. He followed the international success of such acclaimed hits as “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Chinatown” and “Tess” with the oddball likes of, respectively, a terrifying and gory take on “Macbeth,” the cross-dressing psycho-drama/comedy “The Tenant” and “Pirates,” a film that gave us the redoubtable sight of Walter Matthau buckling his swash. However, even those who have grown used to such predictably unpredictable choices raised their eyebrows when he announced that his follow-up project to the enormous personal triumph of his Holocaust drama “The Pianist” (which earned him the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a long-deserved Best Director Oscar) was going to be a lavish mounting of that old Charles Dickens warhorse “Oliver Twist.” At a point in his career where he could pretty much get any film that he wanted made, why would he choose a property that has already been done so many times before? Did he have some ingenious idea of how to approach such familiar material in a new light that would do justice to the story while still maintaining his distinctive touch?

Now that I have seen “Oliver Twist,” I am even more befuddled because, with the exception of a couple of visual reminders of his previous work here and there (a shot of someone forlornly staring out a window mimics a similar moment in “Tess”), there is nothing about the film that would suggest to even the most devoted auteurist that Polanski had directed it. Don’t get me wrong–it is a strong and sturdy adaptation that is nicely acted, beautifully produced and does a reasonably good job of wrestling Dickens’s sprawling narrative into 130 minutes of screen time. However, coming from a filmmaker of Polanski’s stature, I have to admit that I was expecting a little . . . more. With this film, he demonstrates that he has the ability to direct a reasonably faithful and acceptable version of “Oliver Twist” but never gives us a hint as to why he would want to do such a thing in the first place.

The essential storyline has not been monkeyed around with in any great way. It still tells the tale of a poor little orphan boy named Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) whose desperate plea for a little more gruel from the greedy owners of the cruel workhouse where he has been imprisoned leads him on an unanticipated journey. He still falls under the wing of a group of pubescent thieves working under the tutelage of con man Fagin (Ben Kingsley). He still finds himself becoming the pet project of the rich and benevolent Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) and sees his fortunes rising for the first time in his life. He still finds himself the target of the malevolent Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman), an all-around no-goodnik who looks at him and sees first a criminal accomplice and later considers him a loose end that must be eliminated at all costs. While not every moment of the novel appears in the film, the screenplay by Ronald Harwood does an effective job of streamlining the book to its essentials and besides, the story is so well-known (even to those who haven’t actually read it) that there is hardly a viewer whose age is in double-digits who will enter the theater not already knowing what is going to happen.

If the whole point of the enterprise was to prove that Polanski could bring a classic Victorian-era novel to the screen without monkeying with the basic material, he has succeeded but since he did the same thing a quarter-century earlier with his astounding “Tess,” it doesn’t really come off as that much of an accomplishment. About the only thing that he really brings to the proceedings is a vivid physical presence to the story. The story it tells is a harsh one and Polanski doesn’t pull punches in the way that others might–when a kid has been walking in shabby shoes for a week, his feet look like it and when a spunky young lass (Leanne Rowe) pays the ultimate price for helping Oliver, the sudden brutality comes as a genuine shock. In addition, the elaborate sets of period London are quite striking in the way that they approximate the stylized look that one might find in the illustrations of a book from that time while still maintaining the sense that people are actually living in the filthy hovels and walking on the crowded streets.

This realistic and lived-in look also comes across in the characters themselves–for once, the kid playing Oliver Twist genuinely looks and seems as if he truly is bedraggled and malnourished instead of coming across as just another fresh-faced little punk stuffing himself with pudding from the honey wagon between takes. The other standout in the cast is Ben Kingsley as the colorfully sleazy Fagin. Sure, he is clearly chewing the scenery here but for once, it is in the service of a role where going a little over-the-top is hardly a criminal offense. Besides, it is clear that he is having a blast in the part and that sense of fun is contagious, which is more than I can say about his work in the likes of “A Sound of Thunder.”

If I tried hard enough, I could work up an argument that “Oliver Twist” does fit in with most of the other entries in Polanski’s filmography by pointing out that he has always demonstrated a fascination with victims of fate–Tess, Evelyn Mulwray, Carole Ledoux, Wladyslaw Szpilman–and the ways in which they respond to the cruelties that they are forced to endure in order to survive in a world gone wrong. However, for that to work, it would indicate that Polanski had something to say about Oliver and his ordeal as he did with those other characters and I never really got that sense. Instead, he seemed more interested in simply telling the story than into exploring the underpinnings of the story–this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I guess, but it just seems weird that Polanski would choose to simply overlook what might have been a fascinating approach in order to simply film the story in such a familiar way

All of these thoughts were going through my mind as the end credits began to roll–I liked the film but I still had no idea why Polanski wanted to make it. All of a sudden, the answer to that question was literally right in front of my face–both of Polanski’s young children, daughter Morgane and son Elvis, make appearances in the film; the former plays the daughter of a farmer who shoos Oliver away from his property and the latter is a fancy lad who is teased on the streets by Oliver and his new friends. Apparently, he decided that, having made some of the darkest and most harrowing works ever committed to celluloid, he finally wanted to make a film that he could both feature and show to his offspring without traumatizing them. If any filmmaker has earned the right to do that, it is Polanski and I for one certainly wouldn’t begrudge him that achievement.

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