Roman Polanski's twist on Dickens brings the classic back with a new look and
a mild tone. The soft approach, in fact, tells us more about the Polanski
state of mind than it reveals sparkling new insights into the classic drama
and its iconic characters after approximately 11 prior films have explored
the story (not counting TV). But, his intention to produce a version that
kids won't have nightmares over, despite an effect of blunting the dramatic
punch, is beautifully realized visually.
Twelve year-old Barney Clark fulfills the title role with considerable
worthiness. As the story revolves around his orphan character's ability to
impress those who might harm or rescue him, he's an exemplary study in good
looks, bright intelligence and unchallenging innocence. These traits don't
help much at first, however, when he suffers the strictness and degradations
of the orphanage workhouse system in 19th century England (as reconstructed
in 2004 Prague). After a fracas with a provocating boy (Chris Overton) who sees
Oliver as a competitor, our falsely accused (and wrongfully beaten) hero
escapes his orphan's lot and gets on the road to London where his real
With shoes worn out, Oliver winds up lying in apparent pain and bare-feet
skinned red, on a busy corner of the big city, where he comes to the
attention of The Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a not so innocent teen-age
street urchin who immediately senses a potential comrade in need. He leads
the bedraggled traveler to his gang's apartment hideout where he introduces
Oliver to its leader, sponsor, and trainer in the fine arts of street theft
and opportunistic petty crime... Fagin (Ben Kinglsey).
Fagin is delighted to see the new boy (whose foot-injuries have miraculously
disappeared), considering him a handsome new addition to his income-producing
crew of juvenile miscreants. But when he hears the boy's utter politeness,
and calling him "sir" at every turn, he all but falls in love with the kid.
As it will turn out, Fagin, while a criminal in deep with others of his kind,
like the dangerous Bill Sykes, becomes Oliver's staunch protector.
In fact, why anyone would wish harm on the boy is a persistent question, even
as events construe to make him an enemy. It all starts with Oliver observing
the Dodger and cohort Charley Bates (Lewis Chase) demonstrating their method
of pickpocketing outside a book store. But, while the mark, a gentleman with
the name of Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke - Watson to Sherlock Holmes), is
unaware of the theft to his property, the bookstore owner has seen it and
comes running out to catch the thieves. When he sees Oliver standing there
in confusion, he immediately points to him as the thief.
This takes them all to the kangeroo court of a cruel magistrate (Alun
Armstrong) who is all to ready to lock Oliver up when a witness appears to
clear Oliver of the crime. By this time, the victim in the affair, Mr.
Brownlow, has become entirely taken with the charm and good behavior of the
boy and takes Oliver home for treatment of his wounds. The wealthy old
widower treats his new houseguest as a son in the making... until Fagin and
Sykes, fearing their exposure, track him down and pluck him back into their
fold (for the slight elevation of the drama).
This fear of Oliver as a betrayer becomes the only danger to Oliver's
well-being that the movie generates. It's given some teeth of perilous
possibility by having Sykes murder his girlfriend Nancy (Leanne Rowe) when
she betrays him to Brownlow. But, by this time, we are far too comfortable
with the subdued nature of the drama to feel any real threat, a bloody
murderer notwithstanding. This version of "Oliver Twist" produces little
Despite that, and ignoring the number of film predecessors, there's much here
to enjoy. Not so much the screenplay by Polanski's collaborator on "The Pianist," Ronald Harwood,
but very much in the casting. Bearded Ben Kingsley relishes his portrayal of
Fagin as a criminal whose greed is submerged by his basic good nature, a
demi-villain with lots of heart. Designed carefully to appeal to the children
for whom this version is targetted, Kingsley cuts the ham close to the
Harry Eden's role as the Dodger is underwritten and squanders an opportunity
to more fully develop the potential of the character and the gifts of the
actor. Eden's performance in his first film, "Pure," will tell you exactly what you need to know about
this future movie star. Remember, you heard it here.
Mark Strong's colorful good humor gives enough impetus to his role as Toby
Crackit, Bill Sykes partner in crime, that it demonstrates the lack of care
in the creation of others. He's becomes a presence we're glad to have for
the humorous energy he provides a film of such delicacy of tension.
Most impressive of all about the production is its look. Reverting to the
traditional approach, Polanski eschews digital effects in favor of building
sets and backdrops for his look of old London. Except for the unrealistic
cleanliness of streets and living quarters, Production Designer Allan
Starski's and Art Director Jindrich Koci's work are exemplary. But,
arguably, the real star of this film is the cinematography of Pawel Edelman
whose every frame is laden with the kind of texture and depth a Victorian
painter might be proud to call his.
In the end, Polanski has rendered a version of "Oliver" that's so safe, it's
pretty much a case of baby-sitting by movie. No nightmares, guaranteed.
From a novel which has been described as having a "violent, lusty, primal
quality," there's little here to recall the auteur's prior inclinations
toward intensity, as seen in his own trenchant interpretation of another
literary classic, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles." This doesn't even suggest
it's from the same hand.
~~ Jules Brenner