Oliver Twist Review

Roman Polanski’s slide into respectability continues with Oliver Twist and those of us who love his earlier works with a passion which borders on the indecent are likely to feel the same letdown that we felt upon watching The Pianist. Polanski, the satyr of Hollywood who gloried in sun-drenched rot and urban malignancy, has gone straight and instead of creating a Dickensian world from the repulsive riches of Noah Cross and Roman Castavet, he’s returned to the anaesthetised bloodlessness which scuppered his adaptation of Hardy’s Tess. The result is a movie which is absolutely alright and would, from most directors, be more than acceptable. But Polanski, with his own experience of being an orphan and a history of personal tragedy, should all too well know the world that Dickens creates – dark, vicious, cruelly ironic – yet chooses instead to give us Oliver! without the dancing. Here and there, something of the old Polanski breaks through and you can see what he could have done with the material but almost immediately, the shutters come down and bland competence re-asserts itself.

It would be unfair and, indeed, plain wrong to suggest that the film doesn’t have an emotional pull. However, I think that this comes mainly from the narrative strength of Dickens which asserts itself powerfully over any adaptation of his work, even disasters like the 1974 Great Expectations. G.K. Chesterton said that “Dickens didn’t write what the people wanted; he wanted what the people wanted” and it’s the moral imperative of the author as campaigner which lends his stories such power to move and provoke. “Oliver Twist” was apprentice work in some respects and is burdened with an excess of loose-threads-tying in the second half that betokens a young writer in a hurry. But it’s a novel packed with memorable characters and dramatic set-pieces which demonstrate how adroitly Dickens can create suspense. He goes for the reader’s jugular on several occasions, the murder of Nancy being the most notorious and this indicates another important thing about the author – a rigorous avoidance of good taste. His novels are often vulgar – one of the things which Henry James disliked about them – but, at best, the vulgarity is that of the torrent of humanity that defines urban life.

Polanski’s film does capture some of this, particularly in the early workhouse scenes where the casual cruelty meted out to the orphans is vividly captured and during some of the street scenes, shot on a vast set in Prague. But what works against this is the lush visual style created by the designers and the beautifully glowing cinematography of Pawel Edelman. It may be that my head is too full of David Lean’s 1948 version where Guy Green’s monochrome images had the bleak, stark contrasts of a mezzotint. But Polanski’s film edges too close to the BBC Sunday afternoon Classic Serial mode for comfort, in the sense that it somehow sanitises the original by making it lushly hygienic, the last thing Dickens should ever be. The recreations of London life are stunning to look at but they lack terror, especially towards the end when terror should hold sway. The dirt on the boys’ faces is all too obviously slapped on before a take, much as it was in Carol Reed’s 1968 film of the Lionel Bart musical version. What was needed was some of the visual bleakness of the last hour of The Pianist - 19th Century London bearing far greater resemblance to wartime Europe than the sedulously furbished period recreation we get here.

The narrative of the film simplifies that of the novel. It begins with Oliver’s arrival back at the workhouse and ends with his adoption by Mr Brownlow and is consequently very similar indeed to the Lionel Bart musical. We lose the central sub-plot involving the devious Monks and Oliver’s ancestry and this may well be a bonus given that most readers find this distinctly jarring when it comes in swathes of exposition towards the end of the story. It does, however, mean that we also lose the familial tie that explains Mr Brownlow’s instinctive devotion to Oliver and makes Brownlow’s own childlessness particularly poignant. Here, although well played by the reliable Edward Hardwicke, Brownlow is just a kindly old man.

Indeed, this simplification continues throughout the film. Ben Kingsley’s Fagin is often technically brilliant, especially in the small details which are so often a mark of Kingsley’s excellence as an actor. But while not being the avuncular comic character that Ron Moody turned him into, this Fagin is let off too easily. The early moment when he threatens Oliver with a pair of scissors has considerable resonance but soon begins the usual process of dividing Fagin off from the traditionally satanic figure of Bill Sykes, played on one note by Jamie Foreman. The vital sense in the novel that you get of Sykes and Fagin being inextricably linked in darkness – Sykes as the bastard creation of Fagin – is completely absent. In mitigation, I would say that the boys are very well played and Harry Eden’s Artful Dodger is an appealingly malevolent creation as opposed to the capering cockney in the musical. There are also memorable character cameos from Alun Armstrong and Ian McNeice.

But this is all very bland, seemingly determined to avoid the kind of emotional complexity which makes Dickens evoke such contradictory responses in the reader. Certainly, Dickens uses stereotypes with a will and no more obviously than with the character of Fagin where anti-Semitic cliché frequently intrudes. But while the characters may be stereotypes, they are rarely one-dimensional and even in the most loathsome individuals – Jonas Chuzzlewit, Mr Tulkinghorn - Dickens cannot resist giving them a few touches of humour. How could the director who created Noah Cross as an incestuous bastard who was the most richly humorous, most grandly charismatic character in Chinatown have made this rather childish distillation of a novel with a straight face? I know he says that he wanted to make a film that his children would enjoy but that shouldn’t mean abandoning his own personality as a director. There’s no horror here and it’s particularly lacking in the killing of Nancy and the final hanging. More than that, there is no black humour and no mischief. Most damagingly, there’s no genuine feeling for pain. The sentimentalising of the pivotal final scene between Oliver and Fagin is symptomatic. Oliver Twist, a film which should be rooted somewhere in his soul, is the most impersonal film that Polanski has ever made.

The Disc

Sony’s DVD of Oliver Twist is more than adequate as a presentation of the film but skimps on the extra features. I really wanted a commentary from Polanski to know what he was thought he was doing but in the event we have to make do with some brief comments in three featurettes.

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. As a 2005 production, a good transfer would seem the least we could expect and Sony have delivered the goods. It’s a rich, sharp transfer with good colours, particularly in the early rural sequences. Occasional artifacting but nothing more serious makes. The 5.1 soundtrack is equally good with evocative use of the surround channels and a good balance between music and dialogue.

The extras consist of three featurettes, none of which are particularly enlightening. “Twist By Polanski” looks at the motivations behind making the film – there’s a lot of the self-satisfied mug of screenwriter Ronald Harwood to put up with – and the decisions about the casting. This comes in at 17 minutes. The second featurette, running about 28 minutes, is a bit meatier, looking in more detail at the making of the movie with some good bits about the visual design and the rather soupy music score. The third featurette consists of some bite-size snippets from the younger stars of the film. Also on the disc are some trailers for upcoming attractions.

There are 28 chapter stops and optional subtitles for the film but not the extras.

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