Please sir, can we have less?
POLANSKI HASN’T taken huge risks with the Dickens’ tale of a boy who dared to ask for more, however he hasn’t shied away from the material’s inherent darkness either.
The story is well-known: orphaned Oliver Twist (puppy-eyed Clark), is brought to the workhouse where he immediately gets into trouble after having the audacity to ask for more when the meagre rations he is fed fail to ease his pangs of hunger. Taken from the workhouse to an undertakers, he gets into a fight with an older boy who continually baits him about his dead mother, and so Oliver runs away to London, where he is spotted by the Artful Dodger (Eden). He whisks the sickly Oliver off to meet Fagin (Kingsley) the leader of the pickpocket gang. Under the watchful guidance of Fagin and the other boys, Oliver is taught the fine art of stealing. But when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and falsely accused of theft, Oliver is inadvertently taken under the wing of the kindly Mr Brownlow (Hardwicke), a rich man who adopts the boy. Finally some happiness right? Not if you’re in a Dickens’ novel. No sooner is Oliver happy and content living with Brownlow, then tragedy strikes again. Fagin’s business partner, Bill Sykes (Foreman) kidnaps Oliver and forces him to help them rob Brownlow’s house. When that doesn’t go well, Bill wants to get rid of Oliver. Only with the help of Bill’s mistress Nancy (Rowe) who feels sympathy for Oliver, can the boy be reunited with the only person who has ever showed him any kindness.
Polanski and his team have recreated the chaos, danger and filth of the Victorian capital, presenting a child’s eye view of a world peopled by larger than life adult figures. The strength of the film lies in its lack of sentimentality, which shows a cold, cruel world. The strict unfeeling upper classes look down on the destitute, blaming them for their own conditions and where an orphan boy, because of his station in life, has no future.
Ironically, Oliver himself is the least interesting element. He is the symbol of goodness and honesty, buffeted and abused by the world around him. But he is an overwhelmingly passive and anonymous figure, going from fortune to misfortune with alarming regularity, a pawn at the mercy of other people’s schemes.
In a film full of relatively unknown British actors, many are overshadowed by those who played the roles before them. Jamie Foreman is not over-poweringly evil and never quite escapes Oliver Reed’s shadow as the villainous Bill Sykes. Kingsley is no match for 1948’s Alec Guinness, but Harry Eden does make a charismatic Artful Dodger. However, Kingsley does stand out. Playing one of literature’s more memorable characters, part Shakespeare’s Falstaff, part Lord of the Rings Gollum, Kingsley enjoys playing up Fagin as a grotesque charmer who knows how to flatter and cajole his band of thieves, but who can also turn against them if it suits him. But he does suffer, and Kingsley shows his internal struggle of good and evil well. He doesn’t really want to corrupt young Oliver – he knows the boy’s innocence, but he’s afraid of getting caught or evoking Bill’s wrath to let him go.
This straightforward tale of innocence triumphing over evil may anger some Dickensian purists but the film does capture the spirit of the novel as well as the social consciousness that enriched the book. However, both David Lean’s 1948 version and Carol Reed’s 1968 musical Oliver! are superior. The film’s major drawback is Polanski’s objective storytelling approach, which keeps the audience at arms length emotionally. It’s as if Polanski is reporting the story rather than telling it.
The Oscar-winning director returns to the 19th century England he so vividly painted in his 1979 film, Tess, with its bustling, teeming, dirty environment, filled with pestilence and vermin of all kinds. Polanski wants to make sure we understand just how awful and brutal a time this must have been, so that we’ll be amazed by how this little boy survives.
The spectre of death, specifically the hangman’s noose, hovers over the characters. Polanski evokes his own traumatic childhood experiences of hiding from the Nazis during the holocaust, with recurrent themes of individuals being trapped within enclosed spaces, there are times you wish they would break into song (Food Glorious Food), just to lighten the mood a bit!
Oliver Twist fits admirably into Polanski’s filmography, however it is certainly not among his great movies. Works best as a classic for a generation who may shun musicals and black and white photography. It certainly is a handsome production, however, for me the definitive version is still Carol Reed’s 1968 musical Oliver!