Eye For Film >> Movies >> Oliver Twist (2005) Film Review
Reviewed by: Themroc
Ever since Roman Polanski fled the United States in 1975 to evade imprisonment on charges of statutory rape, his directorial career has been in what appeared to be a terminal decline. Prior to his self-imposed exile, Polanski’s work had been going from strength to strength and in Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, the last two pictures he shot in America, he had directed arguably two of the finest American films of the decade. Shot in Europe just before his flight, The Tenant, a return to the absurdist black humour of his earlier features, has divided audiences and critics. While it isn’t quite the masterpiece its supporters have claimed, it compares well with his early films and is vastly superior to anything he has made subsequently.
As Polanski’s career has veered between the mediocre (Frantic, Tess) and the outright embarrassing (Pirates, Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate) critics and fans have been desperately combing each new release for signs of the old magic. In the same way that even a tentative improvement in album quality leads critics to hail a new David Bowie or Bob Dylan release as a triumphant return to form, a new Polanski release is often accompanied by the sound of critical barrel-scraping among his remaining defenders.
So when Polanski directed his worthy and basically redundant adaptation of Wladislaw Szpilman’s memoir The Pianist, it was duly showered with hyperbolic praise. This was followed by his first Academy Award since Chinatown in 1974, despite (or more likely as a direct result of) the fact that it was the first time that Polanski’s matter-of-fact and sometimes cruel approach had been contaminated by sentimentality.
Which brings us to Oliver Twist - his first feature since that “comeback”. Shot on impressive sets in Prague that stand in for London, Polanski’s rambunctious retelling of Dickens’ much-loved novel is the third adaptation of the text. David Lean (who also adapted Great Expectations in 1946) adapted it in 1948 before Carol Reed directed the musical adaptation Oliver! in 1968. Leaving aside the obvious question of whether or not there was really any point in expending so much time and money on material that had already been well-served on screen twice, Polanski’s version of the story is handsome, glossy, and for the most part entertaining in its own right. However, fans of the director’s earlier work expecting moral ambivalence and a remorselessly bleak worldview will be disappointed.
This is partly due to the source text which divides its characters into villains we can hiss at and heroes we can cheer for (the names give away who’s who before they open their mouths). Ultimately, with the help of some poetic justice, those who deserve it get their comeuppance, good triumphs cosily over evil and (almost) everyone lives happily ever after.
Rather than attempt a revisionist reworking of the novel’s themes or a reinterpretation of the story in an attempt to make it appear prescient, Polanski has attempted a reasonably straight adaptation. He has declared that the film is aimed primarily at children and on those terms I suppose it’s a success. The production design, art direction, costuming and photography, dominated by dirty reds and browns, combine to create a vivid and imaginatively fantastical version of Mid-19th Century London that young viewers can get lost in and the story is carried along by some enjoyable performances and a good score.
Polanski seems uninterested in the early part of the story and these scenes feel bitty and episodic. But once Oliver arrives in London and falls in with Fagin, the Artful Dodger and the psychotic Bill Sykes, the narrative finds its feet and settles down. Characters are allowed room to develop (a bit), moral conundrums arise, and themes of loyalty and betrayal begin to emerge.
Ben Kingsley’s performance as Fagin, a self-interested but pathetic cynic, helps inject a sense of human frailty into a story largely populated by grotesques. However, an attempt towards the end of the film to imbue him with a tragic dimension fails, partly because Polanski’s hitherto cavalier approach doesn’t allow for it. There’s also a hole where the central character should be. The least interesting element in the film, Oliver is often reduced to the status of a passive observer, and Barney Clark who plays him is pretty unconvincing. I think this is partly down to casting (in fact a lot of the paupers and street urchins have remarkably good skin and teeth), and partly down to the fact that Clark doesn’t have a whole lot to do.
But on the whole, neither of these things seem to matter all that much. The cast approach the material with relish and Polanski manages to prevent the broad characterisation and acting which will delight children from tipping over into self-indulgence or scenery chewing that will insult adults. Besides, the whole thing charges along at such an entertaining rate that criticisms of this kind, ordinarily important, seem trivial and pedantic.
Is the director mellowing with age? Although there is a lot of dark, and occasionally macabre humour in evidence, and at least one scene of heartless violence (the brutality of which took me somewhat aback considering the film’s PG certificate), there is none of the uncompromising cynicism of his early Seventies work. So, while never threatening to reach the dizzy artistic heights scaled by Polanski’s best films, Oliver Twist is a respectable, although curiously unnecessary, addition to his body of work.Reviewed on: 06 Oct 2005