OLIVER TWIST directed by Roman Polanski, written by Ronald Harwood from the Charles Dickens novel, with Ben Kingsley, Barney Clark, Jamie Foreman, Harry Eden and Leanne Rowe. A Sony Classics release. 130 minutes. Opens Friday (September 23). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Forget the physical and psychological horrors that made Roman Polanski's last film, The Pianist, so raw.
His version of Oliver Twist probably Charles Dickens's most filmed novel after A Christmas Carol is so safe and sanitized, I'm sure the DVD will make it onto the shelf of every high school English department.
Not that the tale of the titular orphan and his journey from country workhouse to London crime den to posh preppyville lacks bite. Dickens had a sentimental streak, for sure, but he was always critical of his era's appalling social conditions, especially the workhouses and debtors' prisons, which he and his family experienced first-hand.
Polanski never finds the right tone. The early parts, filmed using the same greys and greens he used to strong effect in The Pianist, come off the worst. The flushed-faced villains remain leering caricatures, more comic than terrifying. The sets look decorated with Pottery Barn floor models. And Rachel Portman's score, full of trumpet flourishes and huge orchestral swaths of sound, is too richly romantic for what's essentially a picaresque tale of good and evil.
However, once Oliver (Barney Clark) gets to the big, bad city, his feet resembling bloody stumps, there's more to engage our senses, and Polanski and his production designer do a good job of recreating Victorian London, although the vision of St. Paul's looming over everything seems a bit much.
Ben Kingsley, outfitted with a false nose, bad teeth and greasy hair, tries to make the most of petty thief ringleader Fagin, here stripped of any reference to his religious beliefs. (Too bad, because a scene about Christian conversion near the end now makes little sense.)
Kingsley communicates a lot through his mischievous eyes, but he's got no one to act with. Jamie Foreman's thug Bill Sykes isn't frightening enough, and Clark, though delicate-featured and convincingly angelic, is a cipher.
In fact, the most controversial bit of casting is Leanne Rowe as the prostitute Nancy, Sykes's girlfriend who helps return Oliver to his new upper-crust guardians. Rowe seems barely out of her teens, and seeing her with pushed-up bosom and made up to look even younger is disturbing. Too bad Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood didn't give us more about her young harlot's life.
Still, we should be grateful that Harwood left out the novel's most implausible bits, including the laugh-out-loud revelations about Oliver's genealogy. There's no mention of his mom or the missing locket. I guess even Polanski realized that would have been one twist too many.