Roman Polanski: Back in Black!
Oliver Twist / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
When I heard that Roman Polanski’s follow-up to The Pianist was going to be an adaptation of Oliver Twist, I wasn’t sure whether to be more perplexed or disenchanted. Oliver Twist had already been transfused through film and television about a trillion times (exact estimate), and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how Dickens’ fervent moralizing and obvious caricatures would meld with Polanski’s disturbing cynicism and violence. The Pianist, its virtues notwithstanding, was at once Polanski’s most accessible and candidly sympathetic film, and many of his fervent supporters wondered if he was getting softer in his old age. If Roman was through being dark and exceptional, then Oliver Twist appeared to be another step towards cinematic conciliation.
In hindsight, it was a reservation that should never have been. Dickens is always remembered for his mawkish sentimentality, but the tragedy underlying his sense of social injustice is equally as important. And on the flip side of the coin: Polanski, notorious for the nightmares of MacBeth and Repulsion, never mind the atrocities of his personal life, has an unappreciated reservoir of human empathy. This empathy; the effervescent sunshine that reigns after coming through a relentlessly dark, moribund tunnel makes Polanski’s Oliver Twist not merely a picture-perfect literary adaptation, but a damned masterpiece.
From the opening scene, which begins with Oliver’s delivery to a dismal orphanage, Polanski establishes the tone: alienation. Oliver is hopelessly marooned in the drabness of Victorian England, bounced from caretaker to caretaker by a diffident and cruel social system. At best, his custodians are ineffectual, at worst, they’re spiteful. The only thing that keeps him afloat is courage and a rather unnatural sense of dignity in the midst of his constant belittlement. It isn’t a pretty picture: children are starved and gaunt, cowering before the stern, homely faces and booming voices of adults; the streets are awash with filth. Oliver drifts aimlessly into the gritty chaos of London, where timely coincidence leads him to be taken in by Fagin and his den of thieves.
Polanski’s genius with literary adaptation resides in the fact that he indulges neither cinematic platitudes nor even the smallest melodrama; he eschews anything that doesn’t feel real. Every other portrayal of Dickens onscreen has sublimated almost all to the ham-handedness of his moralizing and the uniqueness of his characters. Polanski only uses that which serves the higher expositional or moral purpose. In this, he’s aided by stunning set design and Ronald Harwood’s writing, which ejects many of the book’s copious subplots.
This Oliver Twist really is the first to fully realize the more unsettling elements of Dickensian drama; the genuine dread and isolation of childhood, but also binds it into an honest and cohesive whole. Everything burned into the Western Canon is here: Oliver asking for more gruel, the charming acumen of the Artful Dodger, Fagin’s wiles, the vicious bullying of Bill Sykes. It’s all here, but presented in full understatement due to Polanski’s cinematic veracity. It may not work for other literary adaptations, but for Oliver Twist it’s a stroke that has resounding impact.
Many critics and audiences have already found this film unpalatable due to its understated drama and near-dispassionate plot flow, but this is perfectly in accordance with Polanski’s vision. The acting is tightly controlled; excellent, but never rising above the characters themselves or the situations. It’s another testament to the director’s unwillingness to placate, and nowhere is this more evident than in Ben Kinglsey’s Fagin. At almost 60, Kinglsey should probably just be given a giant Oscar statue with which notches can be added whenever he delivers his nigh-annual genius performance. His portrayal is at once kindly and devious; spry and sad; concerned and ineffectual. His final scene is devastating.
Polanski’s reading of Oliver Twist may feel dark and reductive to some, but it’s neither inaccurate nor inappropriate. His is a vision that cuts away every mendacious cinematic trick or manipulation and leaves only the true emotional effect behind. It’s a brilliant film, and one that solidifies Polanski’s reputation as one of the best directors in the world.