Roman Polanski is rightly considered one of the best and most important living directors. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was revolutionary, but in fact he continued to make excellent films for more than 50 years after that (here on the blog I’ve already written about Death and the Maiden, 1994, The Pianist, 2002, and The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1967). So when I’ve started watching Oliver Twist (2005) I admit that I had high expectations (I didn’t even know it hadn’t been a box office hit). What a mistake.
I haven’t read the book by Charles Dickens (I’ve only read two of his works: the splendid A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities) and I haven’t seen the two famous previous film versions by David Lean (1948) and Mark Lester (1968), so I won’t write about Polanski’s film in comparative terms.
The story is the following: the little orphan Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is thirteen years old and runs away from the small village where he was born and raised to avoid being harassed further by everyone, basically. He makes an atrocious 70-mile walk to London where he’s taken under the protective wing of old Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and his faithful Dodger (Harry Eden) and Charley (Lewis Chase), two kids who steal for him. Here come also evil Bill (Jamie Foreman) and the sweet Nancy (Leanne Rowe) and Bet (Ophelia Lovibond). In fact, all but Bill are well-constructed characters, neither entirely bad nor entirely good, and the film would have done well to give them more space.
In any case, Oliver is not cut out for crime and fortunately for him he ends up with the rich and benevolent Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke). Although things don’t immediately go smoothly, a happy ending awaits little Oliver. Ooops, spoiler alert, but I guess everyone knows the story!
I found this film a bit cold. I was unable to empathize with the young protagonist who practically doesn’t say a word for the whole film, limiting himself to whimpering and making sad faces (he has all the reasons in the world to do so, of course). I didn’t like digitally-recreated London (while I loved the sets and costumes for which obviously no expense was spared), and Rachel Portman’s soundtrack didn’t impress me either.
But above all, I felt like I was watching a play rather than a film with real (or realistic) characters. Almost all of them are absurd, they gesticulate excessively and / or wear excessive make-up, like the unrecognizable Tom Strong who looks like the Mad Hatter of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010)… At some point I thought I was watching an unininspired and boring version of Sleepy Hollow (1999).
I know that the fact that I didn’t enjoy this movie is certainly my fault and there’s something fundamental that I didn’t get. I didn’t even understand what was the message that Polanski wanted to send with this more than two hours-long movie which felt much longer to me. Among other things, many characters vanish into thin air for no reason and only Oliver, Fagin, Nancy and Bill have real character arcs, and I found that Bill’s one was particularly uninspired.
In the end, I think that I will soon forget this film. Maybe I will only remember the initial scenes in the factory full of children working side by side and those in the canteen where they eat some insufficient quantity of porridge in silence. For the rest, it seemed to me as a diligent but uninspired, cold work (did I mention that I cannot stand the single-color gray cinematography?), probably not among Polanski’s most successful movies. Ciao!