Dir: Roman Polanski.Fr-UK-Czech Rep. 2005. 128mins.
Roman Polanski made thisnew version of Oliver Twist for his children, but it's hard to imaginekids anywhere warming to his austere, colourless treatment of the story.
Oliver Twist here evokes both Polanski's traumatic childhood andthe Wladyslaw Szpilman character in The Pianist - a blameless humandesperate to survive in the bleakest of conditions and knocked around from oneawful predicament to another. As penned by Polanksi's Pianistcollaborator and fellow Oscar winner Ronald Harwood, it's a too-faithfuladaptation of the story containing none of the comic brio with which Dickensinfused it.
Upscale adult audiencesintrigued by the combination of Dickens and Polanski will be enticed by theprospect of Oliver Twist, especially those who remember how successfullythe director filmed Hardy's Tess Of The D'Urbevilles in 1979. Theirinterest in the film will be affected by critical support which will be mixed,especially in light of two fine existing films of the book - the 1948 DavidLean classic and the lively 1968 Carol Reed musical.
As for wider audiences, Sonyin the US and independents around the world will have a tough time booking thischeerless film into multiplexes. It will have a longer life as a TV staple andas an educational tool.
It's hard for any film-makerto breathe new life into a story which is as familiar as any in literature.Polanski makes very specific choices. From the start he opts to givepersonality to the twisted characters around little Oliver rather than the boyhimself, and, in doing so, creates a hollow cipher at the film's centre.Eleven-year-old newcomer Barney Clark merely passes through the film, given nospirit to speak of, not many lines and not much interaction with the othercharacters.
With Oliver himself just apawn in the hands of scheming adults, children will have nobody to relate to inthe story and will be genuinely alarmed by the menace of the story, especiallysince there is no humour to alleviate its intensity. Polanski's view of theworld as cruel and unforgiving has never felt more dour.
The story begins of coursewith Oliver's arrival at the orphans' workhouse where he draws the short strawand is required by his starving fellows to ask for more gruel. Thrown out forhis insubordination, he is apprenticed by the undertaker Mr Sowerberry buttormented by Noah Claypole and, after being unjustly beaten, he makes hisescape to London.
Having reached the city onfoot, starving and barely conscious, Oliver is befriended by the Artful Dodger(Harry Eden gives a memorable performance here, although like Clark, he isgiven few chances to shine) and taken in by the Dodger's mentor, the suspiciousvillain Fagin (Kingsley).
Taught by Fagin to pickpockets, Oliver starts working the streets, but he has unexpected good luckwhen he comes across the kindly Mr Brownlow (Hardwicke).
If the new film is short onhuman tenderness, it is of course a handsome production, rich in detail andfilled with good actors.
The adult characters arewell-cast - Kingsley is an effectively simpering Fagin, Foreman a trulyfrightening, thuggish Bill Sikes and Leanne Rowe a busty, brassy Nancy. A hostof English character actors lend strong support from Ian McNeice to JeremySwift to Alun Armstrong to Liz Smith.
The sets of a bustling 19th-centuryLondon were constructed on sound stages in Prague and are impressive;cinematographer Pawel Edelman shoots them with the same grim lighting that madeWorld War Two Warsaw come alive in The Pianist.
Rachel Portman, who scoredDoug McGrath's Nicholas Nickleby and Emma, contributes a warm,upbeat score to Oliver Twist which is incongruous with the chilly moodof the film.
Runteam II Ltd
Etic Films SRO
from the novel by Charles Dickens
Herve de Luze