More - can I have more?
Oliver Twist, arguably the most difficult Charles Dickens classic to translate to film, has been adapted nonetheless into a feature nearly three dozen times. Of those, two stand out, and neither has aged well: There's the buoyant campiness of Carol Reed's 1968 musical, Oliver! And most famously, Alec Guinness, a grotesque caricature, hook-nosed, greedily rubbing clawed mitts together, as Fagin, Oliver's exploiter and benefactor, in the 1948 David Lean film.
What more could we want?
Danger, for starters.
Roman Polanski's heartfelt, at times sinister Oliver Twist, which opens today, lacks the urgency and melodrama that marked the Dickens novel - a shocking page-turner in its day, 1839 - and is rather old-fashioned. But it comes closer to menace and monstrous cruelty than any feature version yet. Polanski's take is pure gothic horror - a frightening flick I would strongly recommend for adults and children, say 10 and older (the picture is PG-13, but it's a pretty soft PG-13). There's no singing, and barely a smidgen of porridge. Oliver himself (played by 11-year-old Barney Clark, a vulnerable matchstick of a child) is so angelic amid such misery that his sanity is questionable.
Surrounded by the cobblestoned squalor of English Victorian poverty (but filmed in Prague), and Oliver's harsh fate nearly certain, our friendless orphan's goodness and innocence seems almost absurd. At best, a kind of sick joke. When a judge informs his latest employer, an indifferent chimney sweep, the boy should be treated with kindness, "he seems to want it," the suggestion is not sentimental or sweet or emphatic. It is radical. Children, at that time, were simply not given many protections.
Which is what Oliver Twist on stage and in movies, and even many classrooms, tends to lack: a pervasive sense that not everything will necessarily work out. The story always seems filtered through our ideas about childhood rather than 19th-century England.
Because the book overflows with precocious children who make do, it seems to suggest to many adults that Oliver Twist is best taken by children - even when, ironically, a lot of adults would find the most readable Dickens impenetrable, and at best, unbearably masochistic.
That said, Polanski's Oliver Twist, his first movie since The Pianist, is a terrific children's picture, but of a kind we rarely see anymore: It looks squarely into the angst of childhood, into the dangers, and the terror of being abandoned, without resorting to a feel-good pluckiness - even if the orchestral score by Rachel Portman is somewhat sweetly insistent, at odds with the images.
Once upon a time, even a Disney film could offer real fear. Maybe that's gone because families who go to movies these days, the ones who can afford the ticket prices, can't relate as much to a film about a childhood full of sadness and melancholy.
If that's true, Polanski's picture is far more vital than it appears. More conventional and not as virtuosic as The Pianist, and coming so soon after that Oscar winner, this one is destined for underrated status - however perfectly it fits the shape of Polanski's career, and even his well-known history. The filmmaker, a Polish Jew born in 1933, knows a thing about the kindness of strangers and meanness of streets; indeed, few directors know firsthand more about an orphan's life, and what it takes to simply exist in the most dire circumstances. During World War II, Polanski escaped a Jewish ghetto in Krakow and spent much of his childhood on his own; his parents were sent to concentration camps. He survived, not unlike Oliver, running with gangs, relying on charity.
Polanski, as a filmmaker, never forgot this. As with The Pianist, about a Polish Jew who stays just out of the Nazis' grasp, his Oliver Twist is a deeply personal expression of an artist who believes at heart that the strong will always prey upon the weak, that corruption is institutional and endemic, and that one survives by sheer luck. It's fascinating the way themes he's used for 40 years of pictures - particularly Chinatown - surface in what is primarily seen as a child's story.
Also fascinating is how, as grim as I am making this sound, his Oliver Twist is careful to never get gloomy or too despairing. The look is more Oscar pleasing than dourly realistic: big, ornate, bustling with Victorian life. The script by Ronald Harwood (who also wrote The Pianist) is brisk for a Dickens adaptation; and Ben Kingsley, as Fagin, though looking much like the old Guinness caricature, drops in a few grace notes that feel fresh (but not cheap). For those reasons alone, Polanski's Oliver Twist would be memorable. But coming weeks after the New Orleans flood, and the misery that continues, it's chilling and poignant.
Polanski suggests it's only human nature, when basic rights are ignored and the contract between society and its people gets torn up, for human nature itself to persevere - for the haves to be comfortable, for the poor to fend for themselves, and for the smartest people to ask for more.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com