Saturday, February 18, 2006

OLIVER TWIST - a dull, disappointing Roman Polaski film

Let me say at the top of this review that I am soft on Charles Dickens. I really do think he is the greatest writer in the English language after Shakespeare and before Anthony Trollope and George Elliot. However, I find Oliver Twist to be one of the weaker novels. (This is relative, it's still so much better than 99.9% of novels out there.) My dissatisfaction lies in the fact that this is a novel written when Dickens was young, and so the balance is not so subtle between humour and social critique. In addition, the array of characters is not so socially varied as in later novels. Finally, I find the Oliver of the novel to be a cipher. He shows up the attitudes of the people he meets, but feels rather intangible in himself.

So, when I say that Roman Polanski's new adaptation of Oliver Twist is faithful to the novel, that is not exactly a compliment. But fans will find all the classic, mythic, scenes in place and untampered with. We see Oliver, a poor orphan in a Dickensian workhouse, draw the short straw and have to ask for more food. We see Oliver meet a gang of pick-pockets let by Fagin, and assisted by the wonderful Artful Dodger. We see the violent, evil Bill Sykes murder his soft-hearted girlfriend Nancy for trying to save Oliver. And we see Sykes shopped by his own dog! Finally, we see brave young Oliver try and convert Fagin to Christianity in prison - a raher unpalatable scene to modern ears.

The good stuff: the acting performances from British actors young, old, famous, new, are uniformly well-judged. The sets and costumes are wonderful. The movie is faithful to the source. The bad stuff: For all that, the movie is rather a dull walkthrough of familiar material. There is none of the cinematic vision and authority of previous versions. Whatever Roman Polanski told the cast, this will not be spoken of as THE Oliver Twist. Strange to say, but Polanski has created a rather, well, conventional and mediocre adaptation. Perhaps this is because he deliberately made a film for his kids, rather than a film for himself. Artists may often by egoists, but they serve their art better by following their instincts. If I were feeling mean, I could say that is more of a HBO special than a cinematic release. But even here I think it fails the test, and people who want to see a more authoritative, visually and dramatically inventive and emotionally involving version should check out the BBC's recent adaptation here.

OLIVER TWIST premiered at Toronto 2005 and went on global cinematic release in autumn and winter 2005. It was released on Region 2 DVD this week.

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