Monday, October 10, 2005

Review - Oliver Twist

Roman Polanski has claimed that he chose his latest project because he wanted to make a film that children could enjoy. Perhaps it is understandable that - after tackling the horrors of the Holocaust in The Pianist - Polanski would feel the need to make something a little lighter, but I wish he hadn’t picked Oliver Twist to do it with. Charles Dickens’ classic tale, which features a young boy being endlessly abused by a rogues’ gallery of grotesques, could have been a perfect fit for a filmmaker whose fascinating career has been marked by a taste for the macabre. Unfortunately, Polanski’s attempt to deliver a family-friendly experience has resulted in an uncharacteristically conventional and unadventurous film which adds nothing to the umpteen screen versions which have gone before.

For Oliver Twist Polanski has again teamed up with screenwriter Ronald Harwood (who collected one of The Pianist’s three Oscars) and Harwood has delivered a pretty lean and straightforward adaptation of Dickens’ book. The film skips along at a fair old pace in the early stages, as young orphan Oliver (an appealing Barney Clark) is thrown from the workhouse for the dastardly crime of asking for more gruel and ends up in the care of kindly undertaker Mr Sowerberry. Unfortunately, that arrangement quickly turns sour and Oliver soon decides to head off to London; arriving in the capital weary, bruised and hungry after his 70 mile walk. By a stroke of luck, Oliver makes a friend shortly after his arrival when he bumps into a young thief who calls himself the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden).

Harwood and Polanski’s decision to race through the opening scenes to reach this point makes sense, because they want to unveil the film’s star turn as early as possible. In this version of Oliver Twist the plum role of Fagin is taken by Ben Kingsley, and the decision proves to be one of the filmmakers‘ best. Under heavy makeup and sporting a hunched back, Kingsley fully inhabits the character; providing a vivid and memorable portrayal which finds a sense of humanity at the old villain’s core. His representation does have its own problems, with his Fagin lacking a real sense of menace and often coming across as little more than a kindly and misunderstood old man; but he does light a fire in the middle of the picture which is sorely needed.

In any case, Bill Sykes is the real villain of Dickens’ story and Jamie Foreman’s performance in this part is something of a letdown. Sykes is brutal for sure, but offers little else and this one-dimensional character is an especially disappointing aspect of Polanski’s film. There are delights to be had elsewhere in the well-chosen supporting cast; Jeremy Swift makes for a fine Mr Bumble (although his part is unfortunately truncated by the film’s early haste), Mark Strong’s Toby Crackit is a lot of fun, Edward Hardwicke delivers a good turn in the part of Mr Brownlow and Alun Armstrong is a triumph in his brief cameo as Magistrate Fang. However, these strong performers can’t make up for the lack of bite which the film displays too often.

It’s always interesting when a filmmaker of Polanski’s stature takes on a revered work of literature, particularly one which has been adapted so often, and Polanski’s track record inspires confidence (remember his full-blooded take on Macbeth) but this effort is desperately underwhelming. We look forward to the story’s signature set-pieces, to see what new twist (excuse the pun) Polanski can bring to them, but time and time again we are disappointed. He shoots all these moments in the same way countless directors before have shot them; the “asking for more” scene falls horribly flat, Oliver’s forced participation in the burglary on Brownlow’s house lacks tension and the climax is a damp squib.

Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the film this could have been. When we see Oliver wandering the harsh and lonely streets of London, keeping alive only through the kindness of strangers, it’s impossible not to picture the young Polanski barely surviving on the war-torn streets of Warsaw after escaping the ghetto; and an early shot of a cold and grey workhouse looks uncannily like it could be one of the Nazi death camps the young Polanski found himself in. These scenes seem to bring an all-too-brief personal touch to Oliver Twist, but that important touch is lacking elsewhere.

The film is nothing if not handsomely made, with Pawel Edelman’s rich cinematography and Allan Starski’s superb production design creating an evocative portrayal of 19th century England. However, Polanski’s Oliver Twist never manages to match the atmosphere created by David Lean’s benchmark 1948 version and it’s hard to see this as anything more than a decent TV production with a more lavish budget. Although its flaws are numerous, the film remains watchable throughout thanks to the power of the central story. No matter how many times we’ve seen or read Oliver Twist it remains a great tale, and it’s strong enough to survive this rather lacklustre adaptation intact - if only just.

Polanski has got the child-friendly film he craved, but it’s hard to find a good reason for this take on the story to exist. We already have at least two film versions which can be enjoyed by the whole family (Lean’s masterful interpretation and the 1968 musical Oliver!) which makes Polanski’s film seem redundant. One can only imagine what the Polanski who made Macbeth would have done with this material. His dark and twisted take on Shakespeare (which was made shortly after Sharon Tate’s murder) contains everything his latest film lacks: passion, intensity, and the director’s personality seeping through every frame.
Oliver Twist in comparison seems like it was made on autopilot and - this is something I never thought I’d say about a Roman Polanski picture - it feels like it could have been directed by anybody.