Oliver Twist

Oliver, twisted by the Polish dwarf? Not as much as you might think – it’s a sumptuous family tale with dark undercurrents.

By Trent Mango

“What the Dickens?!” I thought as an invite to the screening of Roman Polanski’s new version of Pliver Twist dropped into my inbox. Imagine the creator of the world-weary, cynical masterpiece that is Chinatown, or the dark expressionism of Repulsion squaring up to the Victorians’ heavyweight champion of sentimentalism!

If there’s something to be sure of, I thought, in Dickens’s cosy corner of the globe the moral compass is set strictly to true north, good will always out, and nary a chance for moralizing is passed up. Whereas Polanski’s world sees innocence defiled, the good exploited and weakness preyed upon without respite. Not so much different spheres of interest as parallel universes… but then, late Dickens gets pretty dark – full of virtue unrewarded and opium-addicted priests living double lives. And Polanski did make Pirates with Walter Matthau… Hmmm.

But for about the first half hour, I was disappointed. The characterisation seemed leaden, the pace slow… hang on, that’s not right, or only partly so – I was mainly being distracted by the cinematography and the gorgeous production design. Some learned old chap once said that too much beauty retards a film’s progress, ‘cos when something beautiful’s on screen, the camera just wants to stop and stare instead of getting on with the important business of telling the story. I think he was probably talking about a woman (they usually are) but by golly he wasn’t half right. So what if the dialogue was clunky, every part of every shot was beautiful. If I’d been able to pause the screening, I’d have done so several times just to look at how the light illuminated a wart on Sowerberry’s nose, or whatnot. And really, who really cares about the workhouse and Oliver’s apprenticeship? Let’s just get to London and get on with all the robbing and carousing.

This is the point when things really kick off and the heavyweight performances come rolling in. Harry Eden puts in an assured turn beyond his years as the artful dodger, and from his appearance in, the film never really lets up, dragging us down into the winding streets and sumptuous gutter trash of London’s slums. Ben Kingsley’s Fagin is outstanding, the film’s strongest point. He’s a mixture of kindness and cruelty, pathos and deceit, subservient of Sykes (a little too Lock Stock for my liking) and wedded to his money chest. Nancy (Leanne Rowe) and Mark Strong’s Toby Crackit are both excellent – the latter unrecognisable as a ginger beanpole – and there’s genuine fun and warmth to be had in the whole shebang.

Every now and then, however, you discern Polanski having a bit of twisted fun beneath it all, revelling in the mischief-making as Oliver learns the sleight of hand required to steal scarves – and there are a few menacingly bone-crunching moments, usually involving Sykes, which mean it’s not quite safe to take little kids along. The cries of a madman at the end are haunting and finish the film on a sombre note but generally, and to his credit, the diminutive Pole is happy to let the whole thing unspool in a fairly uncomplicated fashion – and to his credit. Barney Clark’s Oliver endures it all sweetly – if a little blankly – but I guess that’s the point: he is untouchable in his innocence, incorruptible by the struggle of good and evil that plays itself out around him

It’s difficult to make a film worthwhile when we all know the story and when there’s an acknowledged classic in the pantheon. But Polanski’s done it. I have the slight feeling that this should have been a Christmas film – there’s a lot of the pantomime about it – but there’s also a hint of nightmares creeping in round the edges, so perhaps Halloween’s a better choice.
clare posted 23 January 2008 (20:58:08)
Its Roman Polanski version of Oliver Twist starring Barney Clark, watch him get sold to a undertaker, run away to London and then have everyone in the whole of London searching for him and all this while a deadly criminal tries to kill him! Charles Dickens famous classic novel about an orphan boy left in a workhouse in the 19th century has been filmed countless times; it has even been a musical! But why did we need another Oliver Twist film? Polanski says he wanted to make a movie for children after the darkness of his award-laden the pianist. Although Polanski’s is more realistic, Carol Reed’s 1968 musical is no doubt more memorable. In my opinion Roman Polanski certainly was taking a big risk by attempting a remake of Oliver. Of course he’d say it wasn’t a re-mark but a new, fresh interpretation of Dickens’s novel directly, and that and that it had nothing to do with the Mark Lester musical version of Oliver. However it is clearly impossible to expect the public to forget the iconic and unforgettable acting of Oliver Reed, Mark Lester, Jack Wilde and Ron Moody. So, Polanski left himself and his actors open for direct criticism. No one through could fail to be impresses by the grimy Victorian London which you also see in Polanski bloody Macbeth and lyrical Tess! dragging us down into the winding streets and sumptuous gutter trash of London’s slums.
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