PG-13 for disturbing images.
September 30, 2005 (wide)
Drama and Kids/Family
Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Jamie
Foreman, Frank Finlay, Harry Eden
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By Nathaniel Bell
- Roman Polanski’s latest film, a handsomely mounted
adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic, is not the
masterpiece one would expect from the creative team responsible
for The Pianist. Comparable to last year’s Vanity
Fair, it plays like a perfectly acceptable Classics Illustrated
comic with moments of greatness flecked throughout a rather stodgy
and workmanlike presentation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to
botch a story this good, and even if the filmmakers fail to mine
Dickens’ text for all its spiritual possibilities, one can
be grateful for the small victories.
Most film adaptations of Dickens’ work, like Douglas McGrath’s
recent Nicholas Nickleby, offer pleasure in large, exaggerated
strokes. Cruelty and kindness are doled out in such alarming quantities
it would require an act of purest willpower to suppress an emotional
response. Though Oliver Twist (which Dickens first published
in monthly installments between 1837 and 1839) was written primarily
as a rejoinder to the child labor laws that haunted London at
the time, it’s unfair to reduce the story to a single social
statement. It’s like saying Moby-Dick is just a
book about a whale.
By now everyone should be familiar with the story of Oliver,
a parish orphan who escapes the horrors of the workhouse only
to be abused by his newly adopted family. Running away to London,
he encounters a band of thieving street urchins led by the treacherous
Fagin, sustains several dangerous confrontations, and is finally
rescued by the benevolent Mr. Brownlow. Some of Dickens’
favorite themes are on display, including the need for love during
one’s formative years, the hypocrisy of espousing cruelty
in the name of religion, and the tendency of the environment to
shape a person’s character. The film’s poster art,
which shows a silhouetted Oliver caught in a tug-of-war between
the two primary influences in his life, illustrates the story’s
basic conflict: a battle over Oliver’s soul.
Over the years, many critics have found fault with the temperament
of the titular character, often complaining that the child (as
well as the actor playing him) is too feeble to carry an entire
epic on his frail shoulders. This is a common misconception. Though
Oliver remains the center of the story around which the entire
plot furiously spins, he is hardly called upon to provide the
film with personality. He is innocence incarnate, a blank slate
whose moral fiber is yet to be determined. Like Harry Potter or
Frodo Baggins, he is the one with whom we are meant to identify,
as Polanski himself (orphaned during World War II) has clearly
done. It is a deceptively simple role, and the young actor elected
to play him, an English boy named Barney Clark, rises nicely to
the challenge. A winsome lad whose angelic countenance is forever
at odds with the squalor of his surroundings, Clark is a magnet
for audience empathy, and proves a worthy performer during the
film’s tenser passages.
is surrounded by a well appointed cast that includes Jamie Foreman
as the sadistic Bill Sykes, Harry Eden as the Artful Dodger, and
Leanne Rowe as the ill-fated Nancy. Though all of them acquit
themselves satisfactorily, acting honors go to Ben Kingsley as
Fagin, whose scraggly beard and diminutive front teeth give him
a curiously feral appearance. As the conniving, greedy, yet somehow
compassionate leader of the pint-sized pickpockets, Fagin is one
of English literature’s most memorable creations. Kingsley’s
fresh take on the role demands a more sympathetic reading of the
character than audiences have previously seen, and it is altogether
Polanski, once again working with brilliant cinematographer Pawel
Edelman and production designer Allan Starski, evokes a rich portrait
of Dickensian England (the dirt and grime of London’s industrialized
streets have never been more photogenic), and Rachel Portman’s
expressive folk score manages to sum up the spirit of Dickens
in a single lyrical theme. It’s curious, then, that the
film should falter in spite of brilliant technical support, a
host of spirited players, and a story that’s practically
foolproof. Perhaps it’s that Polanski and his screenwriter
Ronald Harwood are too slavishly faithful to the text to pause
for reflection. The film hums when it should sing. Indeed, it’s
difficult to see why, after David Lean’s majestic 1948 production
and Carol Reed’s stirring 1968 musical, this version was
made at all.
Until the very last scene.
It is difficult to articulate just how much power, tragedy, and
emotional truth are contained in the denouement, but these precious
final moments somehow exonerate a generally turgid first two hours,
and are the film’s raison d'être. Beautifully rendered,
it is one of the most sublime endings of recent years, and it
comes close to surpassing everything Polanski has done thus far.
For over four decades, the director has acquired a reputation
for exploring the darkest corners of the human experience, but
his Oliver Twist is refreshingly free of cynicism. Though
the film is a disappointment, it is of the noblest sort.
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Nathaniel Bell is a film critic in Southern California. Review used
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