Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Rosemary’s Baby) has always been a kid at heart so it’s no surprise where his heart lies in his most recent effort Oliver Twist. Here he takes the Charles Dickens classic and provides a combination of that Polanski punch, a delicate touch, and haunting images necessary to elevate this many times been done before classic into something above the ordinary.
The focus of the tale, young orphan Oliver Twist (Barney Clark), deals through the daily traumas of growing up solo in England. After being branded as a troublemaker by his former Workhouse Master, Oliver takes on an apprenticeship with an undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Michael Heath). After instigating a fight, Oliver unfairly receives a beating and runs away to newly industrialized London. There, the tired and hungry lad meets the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) who offers him a place to stay. The green and proper Oliver doesn’t realize until later his indoctrination into a band of pickpockets led by the sinister Fagin (Ben Kingsley).
Soon after, Oliver gets caught and questioned by the police after witnessing the Artful Dodger and one of the other boys heist a handkerchief. While being questioned by the stern Magistrate Fang (Alun Armstrong) a witness proves Oliver’s innocence and a kindly benefactor Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) takes the lad in. But Fagin and the cruel Bill Sykes track down Oliver because they feel that he may squeal to the police. He once again becomes entwined in their evil ways and relies on the goodness of others to help regain his good name as well as his honest life.
The film offers pure Polanski good versus evil elements that typically mark his films. Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who penned the Pianist) cast grey as the London fog elements into both the characters and situations where goodness can be seen in evil and vice versa. Polanski cleverly steers the Dickens’s ship into waters where good situations turn bad and bad ones turn good but sometimes they turn for the worse. Polanski, of course, adds his trademark reality. The film shows a grittiness much like that in The Pianist as Oliver and the other lads must tramp through muddy, wet, rat infested parts of London to reach their lair.
The film wouldn’t be Polanski without touches of cruelty but in his typical fashion he offers scenes of implied violence and suffering which strike more of a chord that showing the actual events. It’s like wanting to open a door to see something that you don’t truly want to see. Polanski offers just a peek for the eyes and leaves the rest to the mind.
The haunting film score by Rachel Portman and cinematographer Pawel Edelman’s crisp, eerie images only add to the film’s flavor.
Polanski clearly has a soft spot for children and the images, situations and daily life displayed in this film probably bear some resemblance to his own life growing up Poland. Luckily for us, we get to come along for the ride.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.
I don't know if the world needed another version of Oliver Twist, and this doesn't eclipse the David Lean one, or even the musical one, but Harwood turned the story into a ringing endorsement of the Welfare State which was an interesting angle. And Kingsley was great as Fagin (that creepy voice!), though that character can bring out the best in British thesps. Leanne Rowe's excellent Nancy was also worth watching for.