Movie Review: Oliver Twist
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
News of yet another "Oliver Twist" does not necessarily provoke shivers of anticipation. It's no crime against humanity, or orphans, or Charles Dickens, to admit it. News, however, that the latest adaptation comes from director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, fresh off their excellent work on "The Pianist" - a film that proved you can make millions and win Oscars on a Holocaust picture without a soft, placating center - raises expectations considerably.
Those expectations have been met halfway. Based on Dickens' early novel (the full text, after serialization, came out in 1838), Polanski's "Oliver Twist" is craftsmanly and relatively unsentimental. Only rarely do its onscreen ragamuffins, led by Barney Clark's Oliver and Harry Eden's Artful Dodger, give you that extra dollop of sass that threatens to turn into a chorus of "Consider Yourself," a song from the chin-up Lionel Bart musical version.
Harwood's adaptation sprints along, leaving by the wayside whole subplots - a given, outside the miniseries format - and the entire matter of young Oliver's ancestral background. The film features a ripe and robustly inhabited Fagin from Sir Ben Kingsley. His performance owes more to Ron Moody's portrayal in the musical film than to Alec Guinness's artfully florid if egregiously hook-nosed turn in the 1948 David Lean non-musical version. Fagin, who on the page is a far more offensive caricature than Shakespeare managed with Shylock two and a half centuries earlier, has been rendered more temperately than in many earlier editions. The word "Jew," which is repeated nearly 300 times in the novel, along with far worse anti-Semitic characterizations, has been carefully excised from the screenplay.
The motif, teased out of the novel, comes in the shape of a noose. "Mark my words, I'll see him hung," says Noah Claypole, apprentice to Mr. Sowerberry, of his fellow foundling Oliver early on. We hear of hanging throughout, and Dickens disposes of his antagonist by way of a misplaced rope. No one controls Fortune's wheel, not even Fortune: This is a pet Polanski theme, from "Knife in the Water" to "Chinatown" to "Oliver Twist."
Harwood and Polanski remove all traces of the novel's secrets regarding the birth parents of the angelic, impeccably mannered waif of the title. One can see the reasoning: The excision brings the film down to a manageable 2-hour, 15-minute running time, and it erases the notion, beloved by Shakespeare and many others, of a high-born child brought low and then raised up to his proper station again.
The aspect of the novel no adapter can do anything about is simple: Oliver isn't a very interesting character. "More victim than protagonist," writes Dickens scholar Jill Muller in a recent Barnes & Noble Classics edition. The reedy Clark acquits himself well enough within limited parameters. Variously shaped and sized character actors make only a limited impression. The villain, Bill Sykes, comes off as a bit of a bore in Jamie Foreman's glowering visage.
Kingsley's Fagin dominates the cast. The eagle-eyed actor, at once distracted and intense, knows how to milk each moment without slowing a scene's momentum. His faux-fancy line readings turn the underworld lord of the underage pickpockets into a creation who's part music hall, part authentic human being.
For proof that a poor musical score can suffocate a film, "Oliver Twist" is your boy. Composer Rachel Portman's score is jolly in the extreme, even when Polanski depicts scenes that do not call for jollity. When we witness Oliver in the dank workhouse, unraveling long strands of rope alongside his fellow orphaned souls, visually we're not far from certain scenes in "The Pianist." But the music, with its endlessly reprised gallop of a main theme, will have none of that. Throughout, with uneven results, Polanski's imagery veers from stark realism to pricey backlot re-creations. Portman makes it all sound like a cheerful fake.
Polanski, whose "Tess" (1979) finessed a Big Book more satisfyingly, claims to have made "Oliver Twist" for his young children. Certainly in the harsh plight of the protagonist, Polanski hears echoes of his own horrific childhood, the worst of which was spent on the run from the Nazis. Filming on locations in Prague and in various Czech locations serving as London and the English countryside, the director delivers Dickens' tale with some style. The style, however, is that of a more cautious artist than Polanski is at his best.
Directed by Roman Polanski; screenplay by Ronald Harwood; cinematography by Pawel Edelman; production design by Allan Starski; music by Rachel Portman; edited by Herve de Luze; produced by Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde and Roman Polanski. A Tristar Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 30. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG-13 (disturbing images).
Fagin - Ben Kingsley
Oliver - Barney Clark
Bill Sykes - Jamie Foreman
Nancy - Leanne Rowe