Polanski's `Oliver' is faithful and yet fresh

MovieReview B+

September 30, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

POLANSKI AND SCREENWRITER RONALD HARWOOD — Roman Polanski gives us the Dickens in Oliver Twist. He's excitingly faithful to the master British storyteller's 1838 novel about an orphan boy who escapes the workhouse only to run a fearsome gantlet of harsh legal authorities and ruthless exploiters, crooks and knaves. The result is a headlong road movie, even when the road turns into the twisting alleyways of London.

Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood - who won Oscars for their screen translation of The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir of Nazi-occupied Poland - don't scant Dickens' humanitarian protests.

As they trace Oliver's progress from a provincial workhouse to a metropolitan den of thieves, they keep their eyes peeled for the callous ways that 19th-century Britain disposed of the poor and children - and poor children most heartlessly of all.

This movie has more flaws than The Pianist. Barney Clark as Oliver has none of the quicksilver spirituality that's needed. As Nancy, the abused moll of the violent crook Bill Sykes, Leanne Rowe lacks the tarnished heart glow that can give this demimondaine a heroic poignancy. The filmmakers never identify Fagin (Ben Kingsley), the adult ringleader of a gang of boy pickpockets, as a Jew. Yet they allow occasional klezmerlike chords to wink at us aurally on the soundtrack.

Kingsley is still original and brilliant as Fagin (big surprise), and the entire movie boasts a creeping and sometimes creepy potency. When Oliver walks a lonely road to the workhouse with the officious Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift), then scurries down the cramped, hideous corridors of lower-depths London, Polanski's vignettes spring up like the pages of a funny-scary pop-up book. A starving workhouse boy strides between the rows of beds at night to keep (he says) from eating the boy next to him. A chimneysweep attempts to apprentice Oliver, then terrifies even the uncaring certification board with his tales of using fire to motivate young underlings. An elderly cottage woman pities Oliver's torn feet as he sets out to London.

Polanski turns these instants of soot-black comedy or grimy sympathy into telling moments of truth. These scenes actually register more dazzlingly than, say, Oliver requesting "Please, sir, I want some more" during gruel time at the workhouse.

The director deliberately plays the notes of the story off the expected beats. The Artful Dodger (a superbly eruptive Harry Eden) still takes Oliver under his wing, teaches him gutter argot like "beak" for "magistrate," and enlists him in Fagin's ranks. The Dodger and Charley Bates (a cheeky if unintelligible Lewis Chase) once again let Oliver take the rap after they pick an old gentleman's pockets. And that old gentleman, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), nurses the boy back to spiritual and physical health, as in Dickens' original and every adaptation in the two centuries since. But Polanski's unpredictable emphases and rhythms freshen up the material. In this movie, even Bill Sykes' dog barks out a surprise climax. The film gives us a lived-in view of a society that has sprouted helter-skelter. Petty tyrants incompetently govern courts; wily men and women live by outlaws' codes.

Polanski and Harwood capture the moral negotiations that go on in the minds of compromised characters. Nancy will give up Fagin to the law, but not her lover, Sykes. Fagin will inform on Nancy to Sykes, but caution him (in vain) not to be too violent.

Kingsley interprets Fagin as an insidiously ingratiating, incomplete adult. Fagin appeals to a boy's love for secrecy and mystery. But Hardwicke's Mr. Brownlow appeals to a boy's longing for a warm, peaceful home. He's robustly benign.

In this Oliver Twist, after Oliver is safe with Brownlow, the boy demands to see Fagin, now jailed and pitiable and awaiting hanging. Polanski isn't content to provide us with the conventional theatrical finale of Oliver acting like a normal child at last. This movie's Oliver displays the audacity that will bring him to maturity and may eventually make him, as Fagin ironically predicted, "the greatest man of his time."

Despite the movie's several shortcomings, it leaves us sated. That's because, unlike Oliver's workhouse, it does give "some more" - more emotional breadth, more hardscrabble farce, and more haunting drama.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Oliver Twist (Sony)

Starring Ben Kingsley and Barney Clark.

Directed by Roman Polanski.

Rated PG-13.

Time 130 minutes

Review B

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