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Friday, Jan. 13, 2006
New 'Oliver' plays dark, but safe
With his latest film, director Roman Polanski takes on an adaptation of one of Charles Dickens' classic novels, and his challenge is to, ahem, bring a new twist to it. That might not be the easiest thing to do, given that Dickens' "Oliver Twist" has been done on both screen and stage time and time again.
Perhaps the best adaptation to date remains David Lean's 1948 film, although that has largely been eclipsed in the public imagination by Carol Reed's rollicking 1968 musical version, "Oliver!" Rest assured, though, you won't see any rosy-cheeked lads singing "food, glorious food" and dancing around in Polanski's film. You know any director who grew up fearing a disciplinarian father who would lock him in the closet would understand the terror young Oliver feels when he's forced to sleep in a coffin, or shut up inside a coal chute to escape the violent Mrs. Sowerberry.
Polanski, as is his wont, works to return the darkness and menace to the tale. If his last film, the Oscar-winning "The Pianist," was a more overt reflection of the director's own childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Poland, "Oliver Twist" is no less rooted in those memories, of a parentless child forced to fend for himself (Polanski's parents were both sent to concentration camps), and subject to the kindness or cruelties of strangers.
As he did in "The Pianist" -- and long before that in "Tess" -- Polanski proves a master at bringing the period alive. Using studios near Prague, his production designer Allan Starski ("Schindler's List") created entire 19th-century London cityscapes, encompassing everything from the bustle of crowds and carriages in some panoramic shots of King's Street to the rat-infested squalor of back alleys, where walkways between the buildings obscure the sun's rays. The illusion is impressive. The gas lamps, for one, are real, whereas chimney smoke and background details were added digitally, but you'd be hard-pressed to find the seams.
Still, as Hollywood proves on a weekly basis, lavish detail is nothing without story and performances. The first matter is no problem: Dickens' tale is one of his best, littered with colorful characters and perched perfectly between rousing adventure and righteous social critique. The story of an orphan boy who escaped from an abusive, state-sponsored workhouse, and takes up with a gang of grifters and thieves on the seedy side of London, is full of near escapes and wild reversals of fortune.
But it's the cast who really move this beyond the ordinary. Sir Ben Kingsley immerses himself fully into the character of Fagin, the decrepit, devious old man who runs a feral pack of boy thieves from his shadowy, cramped loft. Unlike the merry old Fagin of "Oliver!," Kingsley's creation is far closer to Dickens', given to acts of small kindness and sentimentality, but cunning and prone to menacing rages. His voice is a crotchety, high-pitched purr somewhere between Gollum and an old queen, and his face is etched by lines and framed with a scraggly, lank beard. His predatory grin suggests all sorts of dangers, his body movements rickety and geriatric until he pounces with sudden speed. It's a bravado turn, and Kingsley's Fagin alone makes this "Oliver Twist" stand out.
Barney Clark, in the lead role, has an emotive face, able to convey naivete and an altogether misplaced optimism in human nature. Jamie Foreman, as the tale's ultimate villain, Bill Sykes, has to top Fagin's menace and he does so admirably. He gives us a petty thief grown so cold, so hard, that killing someone -- even his girlfriend, Nancy ( Leanne Rowe) -- is no big deal if it means protecting himself. Foreman gives his character a stare that pierces the screen. It's only Harry Eden, as Fagin's lead thief, the Artful Dodger, who comes off as merely competent, which is a shame because this is a role you can really run with.
All in all, Polanski's "Oliver Twist" is a perfectly adequate update of the tale, excellent if you've never seen a version before, not half bad if you have. Still, though, you get the feeling -- like when "Schindler's List" was released while modern genocide wracked Bosnia and Rwanda -- that it's an easier task to decry past evils than to confront the ones we could actually do something about. Setting "Oliver" in, say, present-day Guangzhou at a Korean-managed sneaker factory with barbed wire fences, armed guards and 14-hour work days, would have been a bolder move, and one far more in the crusading spirit of Dickens himself.