Oliver Twist (2005)

Director: Roman Polanski

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s artistically dangerous to remake Oliver Twist. You face the problem of making a very familiar story your own and standing against other film versions, including a very flamboyant, successful, and well-made musical; so will your actors. If you are Roman Polanski, you will be (and have been) accused of trying to find yet another way of revisiting and exorcising your harrowing childhood, which everyone is tired of hearing about (well, not Polanski’s childhood per se, but the Holocaust). You will have to hear the sarcastically rhetorical question of whether a remake was really necessary.

I am of the opinion that a classic is a classic because it bears up to repeated tellings, and if a genius film maker like Roman Polanski decides to put his stamp on Oliver Twist, I am so there! I was not joined in that sentiment by many people—the film was a mere blip on movie screens this past year. However, I am happy to report that I was right, and the droves who stayed away were wrong. This Oliver Twist is wonderful.

As with all of Polanski’s films, the cinematography (in this case, by The Pianist cinematographer Pawel Edelman) is superb, somewhat resembling a hand-colored black-and-white photograph. This look evokes both nostalgia—a tip of the hat to the sometimes sentimentalized legacy of Dickens—and the realism of a gray England steeped in soot and poverty. The script by Ronald Harwood is crisp and elegant, giving the actors maximum aid in creating their characters anew—and perhaps with the exception of Ben Kingsley’s Fagin, every character breaks free of its stereotyping and past performances and truly lives.

It is the great strength of this Oliver Twist that the characters don’t seem to have popped off the page of a penny dreadful. Nancy, as realized by Leanne Rowe, is a very young woman injured by her bad upbringing, probably anti-Semitic, and more a captive of Bill Sykes than the love-starved romantic in deep denial she normally is made out to be. Bill (Jamie Foreman) is a self-pitying bully, not a fire-breathing dragon, little more than one of Fagin’s young pickpockets graduated to burglary and armed robbery. It’s hard for Ben Kingsley to do much to reinvent Fagin, but he does give him a more cutthroat edge than fans of the other Twists may be used to. Finally, Barney Clark impresses as Oliver Twist himself. He seems a bit clueless a lot of the time, but still a real boy who has a talent for adaptation. His appealing, magnetic screen presence is reminiscent of Jackie Coogan. Clark has two good films under his belt so far (The Lawless Heart being the other), and seems to be on the road to a solid career.

Polanski has given us a well-trod classic made of flesh-and-blood characters. If he doesn’t completely escape the pit of familiarity, he at least makes us feel as though we have lived it a little more than we ever have before. That’s well worth the price of admission in my book. I especially recommend this to parents and their children—it’s one of the great family films we were treated to in 2005.

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