Polanski with a twist

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Oliver Twist. Cinema has already been there, done that. Many times, in fact. You’ve probably already got the t-shirt. Yet the last cinematic attempt was in 1968, so perhaps we cannot blame Polanski for wanting to attempt a remake of one of Dickens’ best-loved novels.
For a film director attempting a modern remake of a classic, ambition and bravery are prerequisites to the task, working in fear of negative comparisons to the masterpieces that have already gone before. The last time we heard of Polanski, he was winning awards for The Pianist (2002), a story of suffering, pain, but above all survival. It is clear why Oliver Twist, concentrating on the hardships and misadventures of a young orphaned boy who finds himself a misfit in society, was an obvious next choice. Charles Dickens was a champion of the underdog. So, it seems, is Polanski.
His aim is not to achieve realism with this adaptation; quite the opposite, which he attains from the surprising amounts of humour. Polanski has discovered the seemingly comfortable juxtaposition of the gritty truth with unexpected hilarity within the novel, and conveys this with style to the screen. As part of the gritty truth, one shot shows a streetwise, fearless, swaggering Artful Dodger strolling alongside a bewildered Oliver. For the unexpected hilarity, the next time we see them out on the filthy streets of a polluted London together, they both share the same savvy expression. Before you know it a smile – albeit small – has crept across your face, as you recognise the swift, if not entirely seamless, transition from workhouse boy to pickpocket in the making.
The film works primarily through its desire to elicit the latent humour, often forgotten, from the larger-than-life characters, with the emphasis on their amusing eccentricities. Polanski seems keen for his audience to realise that besides being a great social realist, Dickens was also an enchanting entertainer.
The movie is also oddly unemotional, except for a remarkable closing scene of forgiveness and reconciliation between Oliver and the iconic, if ambiguous, figure of Fagin. The Fagin that the audience is introduced to is the Fagin that Oliver knows, loves, and hates; one moment playing the elderly joker, the next looming over him, wildly brandishing a knife and holding it dangerously close to the boy’s throat. Sir Ben Kingsley creates a personality which is devious and corrupting, but heartbreakingly likeable, immersing the ending of the film in torrents of pathos.
In Polanski’s world, everything is simple. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad. Shit happens, but that’s just the way it is. Some may think this approach too simple, too clean-cut. The result, however, is not one-dimensional, but a chance for children to enjoy the classic novel. As Polanski says himself, his film is “above all a tale for a young audience”.
That is not to say that Oliver Twist has no appeal for an older crowd. The film transports us back to Victorian England, a time period instantly captivating both in literary and visual dimensions. Dickens’ London is a thrilling city, rich in sweeping images and sordid details, which has captured the world’s imagination and is brought to life on the screen here. Polanski used Gustave Doré’s original Victorian prints to recreate the London Dickens knew. The result is top-hat clad men silhoetted ominously against smoky street-corners, and it will take your breath away.
Nor has Polanski purposefully neglected the darkness of the Dickensian universe. When the film wants to be sinister, it can be chillingly so. Polanski knows full well the compelling power of the audience’s imagination to create fear for themselves, and never forgets the useful mantra of less being more. This shines through during the scene of Nancy’s death: a splatter of blood flying across the kitchen table is far more chilling and horrific than a graphic, brutal murder scene could ever have been.
This is a beautifully visual, enchantingly warm remake of an old favourite. After leaving the cinema, you’ll feel like approaching Polanski as Oliver once approached his orphanage cook, and tremblingly ask: “Please, sir, I want some more”.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005

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