I think with Oliver Twist, Roman Polanski bit off more than he could chew.
The story is well known. Oliver Twist is an orphan who barely survives the workhouse and escapes from his apprenticeship with an undertaker to make his way to London. In London he is befriended by the Artful Dodger who introduces him to the thieving gang run by the mysteriously kind Fagin. Oliver is arrested for something he didn’t do, and the victim of the crime, Mr. Brownlow attests to this and takes Oliver in. Fearing that their lair would be exposed, Fagin and the reprehensible Bill Sykes contrive to find him and bring him back. He is shot, recovers, and is rescued by his accidental benefactor from before. Roll credits.
The Academy Award winning The Pianist is Mr. Polanski’s last film before Oliver Twist. The sets for each of these films are similar in that they are so real it is hard to believe that they were staged. Similarly, the performances are one and all excellent. Barney Clark (Oliver) doesn’t have to carry the film by himself, but could if needed. He is intense and can hold his own against an actor with the power and strength of Ben Kingsley (Fagin). In fact, all of the children part of Fagin’s gang seemed to enjoy playing their parts and their oddly functional family works very well on the screen.
The set and performances take all of the attention; the music is only apparent when the scenes do not contain much action and it is all pastoral and similar to the way the pastoral scenes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thinking back, I don’t recall what the music was like during the action sequences, so at least it didn’t get in the way.
For the first 75 minutes, the movie is almost overwhelming in its faithfulness to the novel. The problem is, once that 75 minutes are up the remaining 60 minutes stray quite far from the book. I am not saying that movies based on novels need to be slavishly faithful; film is a different medium and cannot capture all that is written in a book (usually anyway—and in some ways, moving pictures can help a reader grasp a part of the story he or she might have missed when reading it). The issue is that the film is so slavish for the first half, but then engages in some serious story cutting and rearranging. It’s like watching a film where the writer responsible for the script could only make it halfway through the novel then turned to the Cliffs Notes for the remainder.
Oliver Twist, especially in the beginning, can be considered a type of Holocaust story. The workhouse is where orphans and indebted adults go to do menial work while getting very little to eat. Mr. Dickens is at his most sarcastic when discussing the working conditions and the food. He talks about watering down the gruel even more and about how much cheaper it is to bury those unfortunates who essentially starved to death because their coffins need not be very large. It would not be at all difficult to parallel Mr. Polanski’s early life in Nazi occupied Poland with the life of Oliver Twist for the majority of the novel. What I see happening is that, when it is clear enough that Oliver will come out well in the end, Mr. Polanski was finished and just needed to wrap up the movie as quickly as possible.
Oliver Twist is not an easy story to retell. In many ways, it is Mr. Dickens’s masterwork; not only is it extremely socially consciousness but it presents this consciousness in an artful, darkly comic way. Also, the character of Oliver Twist is more rounded and realistic than many of the downtrodden that populate the majority of Mr. Dickens’s oeuvre.
I’m not sure how to rate the film. The first half is wonderful; the second half was like a series of wind-sprints to get to the credits. This format screwed up the pacing so that it was hard to get a handle on it. What was calm and contemplative became anxious and harried. The best advice I can give is this: stop watching the film when Oliver gets shot—then pick up the novel and start reading from where he gets shot. That way you get the best of the movie and the complete story (though you miss much of the brutal sarcasm that makes this novel so powerful).
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