Film Review ***1/2: Dickensian London With a “Twist” of Hope
Innocence Prevails in Polanski’s Retelling of Orphan’s Journey from the Poorhouse
By Rosa Cao
Directed by Roman Polanski
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
Starring Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden
Picture yourself walking across green fields into an English sunset; scraping your sleeve across a milestone, you see “London: 70 Miles.” So fares orphan Oliver Twist with tattered shoes and half a loaf of stale bread knotted in a cloth. Having just run away from his latest position, he heads toward the excitement, hope, and danger of Victorian London, penniless as ever, but free for the first time in his life.
He almost starves on the seven-day hike — this is not the happy ending of a fairy tale, but its beginning. The real excitement starts upon his arrival in London, when, hungry and footsore, he is adopted by the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a young pickpocket wise in the ways of underground London. The Artful Dodger procures him food with a practiced hand and takes him into the company of Fagin’s den of thieves.
In knitting Dickens’ sometimes rambling tale of Oliver’s journey into a 130-minute movie, director Roman Polanski manages to retain its most memorable scenes and characters. All the famous lines are there: “I want some more,” says Oliver after a scant poorhouse meal, convincing his guardians once and for all that he is a hardened criminal destined for the gallows.
For much of the movie, Oliver is a pawn, tossed from one set of callous arms and hard hands to the next. This is the movie’s only weak point; Oliver has so little opportunity to show character of his own that it’s hard to remember why we should care about him as anything more than an embodiment of pretty-faced innocence. And when he is adopted into the comfort of Mr. Brownlow’s home, one wonders whether Oliver is really “good” (in choosing virtue and honesty over a criminal life), or if he has simply been seduced by this unaccustomed material comfort and safety.
From the sepia-toned gray of the almost mythic poorhouse to the golden-green garden of Mr. Brownlow’s suburban paradise Polanski recreates the London of the imagination in the rich darkness of Fagin and the boys in their rooftop lair in the slums. In a beautifully orchestrated dance of “the game,” Oliver is shown how to pick pockets by the boys, while Fagin plays the unsuspecting rich victim. A charming soundtrack appropriately highlights every stunt but is never heavy-handed.
While many of the minor characters are but caricatures of hypocrisy or small-minded selfishness, Polanski gives them a gift of humor lacking in the original; unlike Dickens, this movie never takes itself too seriously. Despite the poverty, injustice, and betrayal, there are plenty of hilarious moments.
Barney Clark is appropriately charming as the young Oliver, full of trusting innocence, with a spark of fun and determination as well. When circumstances turn against him, as they so often do, Clark is almost as good as Frodo, though significantly less annoying, at looking utterly victimized. Ben Kingsley plays a wonderfully hideous Fagin, who is kind in his greasy selfish way. (All references to Fagin’s ethnicity were expunged in this adaptation.) Jamie Foreman is convincingly evil as the cold-hearted murderer Bill Sykes, and Leanne Rowe inspires pity and admiration as the martyred Nancy Sykes. Edward Hardwicke is Mr. Brownlow, Oliver’s fallible would-be rescuer, who, despite ridiculous sandy whiskers and a middle-class na vet , manages to bring Oliver safe and home at last.
Polanski intended this movie for children; he shares Dickens’ hope that “the little children be saved.” Perhaps because of this, Polanski protects us from the full darkness of his subject. He distances us from the most disturbing scenes with melodramatic flourishes and touches only lightly on the harsh realities of Victorian England’s poor, despite Dickens’ obsession with that topic. And in that spirit, hope (for Oliver at least) is always peeking through the cracks, though his companions have ends appropriate to a cautionary tale.
Polanski recreates this classic tale with sympathy and tenderness born of a childhood not unlike Oliver’s own. For all but the most hardened realists, the resulting fairy tale journey is a delight.