At the age of sixty-nine, Roman Polanski was hailed for a comeback of insanely good proportions in 2002 with The Pianist, a portrait of real-life pianist and WW2 survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, which also served as an evocation of Polanski’s own childhood experiences of the Warsaw Ghetto. Suddenly an Oscar-winner, he turned to Dickens for his next film project. But upon its release last autumn, Oliver Twist flopped pretty decisively, and seems to be a movie which critics no longer mention. Now that it is coming out on DVD, in a fine transfer, we have another chance to assess it – and it looks like being a film which will prove the test of time.
Polanski has said that he set out to make a film for his own children, and with Oliver Twist he and cinematographer Pavel Edelman have aimed for a more heightened style after the realist approach in The Pianist. In the new movie Edelman’s ‘scope photography allows the world of the film to feel massive and intimate at the same time, and screenwriter Ronald Harwood has adopted a similar approach to the adaptation: in one of the DVD’s informative extras, he discusses Oliver Twist as a myth, with characters who are archetypes, and the actors achieve, on the whole, a good mix of broad strokes and tiny details. Oliver, played by Barney Clark, is not as cherubic a character as Mark Lester’s incarnation in the musical film Oliver! He has a face which could go sly or respectful depending on the influences around him – we feel his frustration when he has been snatched back from the good offices of Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke) because we know how easy people would find it to think badly of him. And although Polanski might have been aiming to entertain his own children with this film, he can’t help but put Oliver in a world which is full of real dread – not to mention mud, poverty and flippant London rain.
This is, after all, very much a Roman Polanski movie. Oliver has not much more than his wits to survive on – a trait shared by Wladyslaw Szpilman, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, and Polanski’s own beleaguered Trelkovsky in his 1976 movie The Tenant. Smaller than the other boys in Fagin’s gang, Oliver sometimes seems etched onto the screen like a Victorian-era Polanski figure, and the movie’s conclusion, far from being reassuring in a ‘family movie’ kind of way, conveys sadly an accumulation of hard experience by someone so young.
Oliver Twist also benefits from Polanski’s extraordinary way with period. Be it vampire-strewn eastern Europe in The Fearless Vampire Killers (with its terrific palette of white and blue), pre-war LA in Chinatown, or that most English-feeling of movies, Tess, from the Thomas Hardy novel – and filmed entirely in France – Polanski makes his worlds utterly believable, partly for not being ostentatious; this is not a rampant art director’s cinema. The London of Oliver Twist is grim, smoky and anonymous; and that looks like raw pain on Oliver’s bloody feet as the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden) finds him slumped on a step, exhausted from his seventy-mile walk. One of the DVD extras gives eye-opening views of the London sets constructed on a backlot outside Prague; and just as Polanski asserts his belief that he does his best work when left alone by the studios, so this movie feels like the result of a group of technicians and actors coming together under a director who instills in them the confidence to do their best work.
So who knows why it didn’t do well in cinemas. Oliver Twist is, of course, a very familiar story, and maybe this movie doesn’t instantly grab its audience and offer them something obviously new or relevant to today. Perhaps people felt that they didn’t really need to see Ben Kingsley’s Fagin to know what he would be like. But the sheer craftsmanship (including Hervé de Luze’s very fluid editing) is a reminder of how Polanski has earned his exalted reputation. And the moral conundrums posed here – how a good-hearted person is to do good in a world which would seem to deliver him blow after blow, how he can resolve his feelings for someone as ambiguous as Fagin, and how we can resolve ours – deepen the film on repeated viewings. The Oscar nominations are out and Oliver Twist hasn’t received a single nod. But no matter – this is one of the finest films of the past year.