Roman Polanski is a masterful director, and his 27th film, an adaptation of the Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist, reaffirms his status as one of the greatest. Polanski has suffered miseries of Jobian proportions, from the death of his mother in a Nazi concentration camp, to his childhood years spent wandering through Poland and being victimized by German soldiers, to the brutal murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, to his exile from the United States. Whether Polanski uses his films as catharses subconsciously or as direct therapy, his anguish is often reflected in his work, and Oliver Twist is no exception. Indeed, as Roger Ebert writes: “Oliver is about 10 when he is taken into the world of Fagin and his young pickpockets, and Polanski was 10 in 1943, when his parents were removed by the Nazis from the Krakow ghetto and he was left on his own.”
Poor Oliver (Barney Clark) is kicked about from one place to the next, shifted from the cold orphanage to the cruel Sowerberry household, finally ending up (after many days of traveling with proverbial bag-on-a-stick in tow) in the auspices of the deranged Fagin (Ben Kingsley), the disheveled ringleader of a band of young pickpockets and hoodlums. Oliver settles into a rough comfort there, but when a kind old bookseller, Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), gives him a home, clean clothes and a bed to sleep on, the callous street-life loses its compromised appeal. So when Fagin, his rotten, crooked teeth jutting out and wispy, greasy hair bending in every which direction, asks Oliver, “This is a pleasant life, ain’t it, my dear?,” Oliver is not so sure anymore.
The film turns dark with the introduction of Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), the oldest and most volatile associate of Fagin. Sykes doesn’t mess around with picking handkerchiefs out of stuffy old men’s pockets – his equalizers are a shiny pistol and a mean pit bull. Sykes’s grand and downright evil schemes are jolting in comparison to Fagin’s half-crazed caressing of a rusty old jewelry box.
Polanski’s film is dark, sad, and wonderfully crafted. Every frame seems to succinctly capture the visual spirit of the movie, and almost any still could have been used for the poster art.This picturesqueness, along with the fanciful music and black-and-white prints of London that open and close the film, give the impression that the movie is, as odd as it sounds, a cinematic novel. The sets and costumes magnificently capture the old-style English milieu. And the cast, with their bloated faces, crooked teeth, muttonchops, cravats and petticoats, are wonderful caricatures.
The setting of Old London is one of the scariest places that I can think of, a material nightmare embodied in fog, dark alleys, harlots, disease and filth. It is not the place of the Crystal Palace and Westminster Abbey, but of the Tower of London and people like Jack the Ripper, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. And so it is this London, the industrial horror, that is the setting for Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist. It is the cruel breeding ground for Oliver’s troubles and the home of miscreants, street urchins, and murderers.
There is a great scene at the end of the film that strengthens the parallels between Oliver and Polanski. (For those of you who are not familiar with the ending of Oliver Twist, read no further.) Mr. Brownlow adopts Oliver, and Fagin is captured and sentenced to be hanged. Oliver wants to visit him before his sentence is carried out, so Mr. Brownlow takes him to the prison in the rain, they walk through the filthy corridors, being led by from one locked room to the next, until they get to Fagin, who is hysterical with grief. Oliver approaches him and says, “You were kind to me,” and they embrace. Oliver leaves, and Fagin resumes his tortured wailing. And so, too, does Polanski attempt to make peace with his demons, wrestling with them through the medium of cinema in the dingiest, darkest cells. Not everything is sunshine and grief’s smudgy presence remains, but within a moment’s time, an eternal peace is established in the healing warmth of a long embrace.
Archived article by Terry Fedigan
Sun Staff Writer