Straight-Arrow 'Oliver Twist'

Ben Kingsley, left, is Fagin in Roman Polanski's
Ben Kingsley, left, is Fagin in Roman Polanski's "Oliver Twist," with Barney Clark as young Oliver. Jamie Foreman, below, plays the sadistic Bill Sikes. (Photos By Guy Ferrandis -- Tristar Pictures)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 30, 2005

Roman Polanski's "Oliver Twist" is a high-toned, handsomely mounted, scrupulously literate adaptation of a beloved classic novel.

I hate high-toned, handsomely mounted, scrupulously literate adaptations of beloved classic novels.

On the surface there's absolutely nothing wrong with this most recent version of a book that has undergone countless big- and small-screen interpretations. But the fact that there's nothing wrong with it -- that there's nary a scenic detail or scrap of dialogue or performance that isn't utterly on the nose -- is precisely what's wrong with it.

"Oliver Twist," which was published in 1838, has become such an essential part of Western literary lore and culture that it scarcely needs retailing, but in short: The title character, a 10-year-old orphan living in a squalid Victorian workhouse, embarks on a journey to London, where he comes under the tutelage of a pickpocket named Fagin and, after a robbery goes awry, is subsequently taken in by a wealthy man named Brownlow. Incensed, Fagin's most sadistic protege, Bill Sikes, kidnaps Oliver and the boy becomes the object of a fierce, metaphorically rich struggle between two archetypal father figures.

The best-known film adaptations of "Oliver Twist," of course, were David Lean's 1948 film starring Alec Guinness as an unforgettable Fagin and Carol Reed's 1968 musical, simply titled "Oliver!" Polanski's "Oliver Twist" is an entirely creditable addition to that mini-pantheon, featuring a sound script by the redoubtable Ronald Harwood (who wrote Polanski's last film, "The Pianist"), a fruitful visual collaboration between cinematographer Pawel Edelman and production designer Herve de Luze and solid performances by Ben Kingsley as Fagin, Jamie Foreman as Bill Sikes and newcomer Barney Clark as young Oliver.

Although Polanski has taken some liberties and compressed some of the original text, the story remains unsullied; indeed every character on screen seems to have leapt directly from Dickens's pages, from Kingsley's leering, grimy, old hunchback (whose hooked nose stands as a reminder of the anti-Semitic roots of the character) to the Christian hypocrites who run Oliver's orphanage, whose caricatured girth swells to Brobdingnagian proportions. And not a stitch has been dropped in lending Oliver's picaresque Victorian verisimilitude, from the sadomasochistic austerity of the workhouse to the dreary, distressed quarters where Fagin and Sikes ply their unsavory trades.

And yet. Polanski has constructed his "Oliver Twist" with such lavish attention to detail and such reverence for the book that the production is rendered inert, an effect that is only heightened by the computerized insertions of things such as sunrises and St. Paul's Cathedral into scenes that look as if they were filmed in Backlottingham-on-Thames. (In actuality, "Oliver Twist" was filmed on location in the Czech Republic.) Indeed, had this production of "Oliver Twist" been directed by any other filmmaker -- or at least one without Polanski's knack for both taste and toughness -- it could easily be regarded as a respectable, if not earth-shattering, depiction of Dickens's lively literary world. But because it's Polanski, and because viewers have come to expect the unexpected from him, "Oliver Twist" circa 2005 seems to lack what made Dickens such a master in the first place, his own willingness to experiment with satire, social commentary and narrative form. Polanski's connection to the novel's themes of abandonment and isolation is unmistakable (his parents were prisoners in Nazi concentration camps and his mother died in one); in an eerie way, Clark even resembles a 10-year-old version of the director.

But Polanski's strict reading of the text keeps him from plunging head-on into its most painful psychological, even political, implications. At some point the obsession with production values and note-perfect performances actually distances viewers and the filmmaker from Dickens's most potent indictments.

Indeed, as they watch yet one more tableau vivant of aestheticized cruelty and violence (Sikes's brutal murder of a prostitute named Nancy is kept discreetly offscreen), filmgoers may be forgiven for thinking that, to really bring Dickens to cinematic life in the 21st century, what is needed isn't one more well-heeled costume drama but an enterprise as bold and confrontational as the original work. (Heaven knows that our own "filthy, wicked world," to coin one character's phrase, is rife with enough pious hypocrisy, poverty and exploitation to provide some provocative analogies.) As tetchy and quibbling as it sounds, "Oliver Twist," finally, is too good; it's been produced with such care and virtuosity and integrity that it resembles one of the stippled engravings featured in its opening credits. It's noble, high-minded and safe, and I can't help thinking that I would have preferred an audacious but honest failure.

Oliver Twist (130 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for disturbing images.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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