Does it seem possible that a film made in 1948 and by David Lean could exceed the darkness and controversy of a Roman Polanski picture? After watching the newest screen version of Oliver Twist, the answer is yes.
That isn’t to say Lean’s movies are featherweight (more like bloated, in some cases) but his Twist, moreso than any of the director's famous epics, remains Lean’s true masterwork. It’s also the greatest adaptation of Charles Dickens. Lyrical, gorgeously expressionistic to the point of F.W. Murnau stylistics and highly contentious for Alec Guinness’ brilliant, but exaggerated, Lon Chaney-like Semitic depiction of Fagin (it was banned in the US for three years—and considerably cut upon release) Lean’s picture works like a child’s nightmare. This is how that little foundling Oliver Twist might picture the world. And this is more than likely how Roman Polanski, child and man, colored his milieu.
One of cinema’s greatest living directors and no stranger to the seamier aspects of real life, Polanski is the one filmmaker who could take Dickens’ story and add something extra wicked, extra hostile, extra morbid, and of course, extra morbidly humorous. Though Oliver Twist is essentially a tale for children and adults, Dickens emotional, Victorian appeal belied a distinctly unsentimental depiction of poverty and the vicious underbelly of 1830’s London. Reading between the lines, one can take much, much more from Dickens. So, for a man who’s own childhood was that of a stray, traumatized by the Holocaust only to become the dark auteur of, among other classics, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant and The Pianist, the “more” was exactly what we hoped for. Instead we get a very nice film indeed.
And that’s just fine but not what we expected. Though handsomely mounted, truer to its source material and in a few poignant moments, quite wonderful, Oliver Twist lacks a certain personality that brings on the necessary undercurrents for a truly stirring picture. It’s also, sometimes, surprisingly impassive.
Beginning with Oliver’s (played by Barney Clark) stay in a wretched boys home where he dares asks for “more” and moving swiftly to his unpleasant time working for an undertaker, Oliver journeys to the mean streets of London where his life will change significantly. There he meets the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), the charismatic king of the young lads who pickpocket for the devious, unsightly Fagin (Ben Kingsley). He’ll also find something of a family in this motley crew of boy criminals and have a bit of fun for the first time in his life. Even Fagin, a rag-wearing creep who surely smells a fright (you really do get this sense based on Kingsley’s look and performance) and a man who exploits his boys while hoarding jewels for retirement, is a source of relief for poor Oliver. Anything is better than a workhouse and Fagin is frequently, touchingly kind to him.
Which elevates the picture in sudden bursts. Fagin’s compassion offers the film’s most moving moments—both director and actor create a Fagin who is thoroughly grotesque but exceptionally sympathetic. When Oliver moans “please take pity on this poor wretched man!” it’s both startlingly emotional and powerfully critical— in other words, quintessential Dickens. And when Fagin’s “colleague,” the awful Bill Sykes (Jamie Forman who’s good but no Oliver Reed from Oliver!) turns on his prostitute wife Nancy (Leanne Rowe) we really do suffer the layers of self hatred and hardness in his dreadfully sad actions.
But why couldn’t Polanski tinted his entire movie with this two fisted approach--all that awfulness and poignancy? We see it laid out right in front of us and even feel it via Kingsley, Forman and young Eden (sadly, more than Clark— Oliver himself, but The Artful Dodger has always been a sexier character). There’s even a sequence that’s visually, stunning Polanski--when Oliver is making his way to London, the road is filmed a crooked evil path filled with ominous trees and a mixture of discordant uncertainty and stark fear. But that’s the only exceptionally creative moment in a film that is again, perfectly acceptable.
But perfectly acceptable is not what I expect from Roman Polanski. This may seem overly stern and perhaps unfair, but Polanski’s Oliver Twist should be perfectly brilliant.
"Oliver Twist" opens Friday, September 23.