I meant to slap this up earlier, a comprehensive DVD review of Oliver Twist originally published on IGN upon its release in 2006, in advance of the HBO debut of the fascinating new documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which will also be receiving a limited theatrical run via ThinkFILM later this summer. Best laid plans, though, you know? So here it is now, in slightly abridged form:
The latest re-telling of Charles Dickens’ classic story of squalor, neglect and adolescent exploitation in 19th century London — the original hard-knock life, yo! — comes courtesy of none other than Roman Polanski, and this finely detailed, impressively mounted Oliver Twist instills in its audience a rooting interest in both its scruffy protagonist and the film as a whole.
Orphaned at an early age, 9-year-old Oliver (a quite good Barney Clark, above) escapes his cruel institutional patronage and receives an apprenticeship with an undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry (Michael Heath). This fortune is short-lived, however, as Oliver is railroaded out by the teasings and provocations of a manipulative older boy, and makes his way to London. There he meets up with a young pickpocket known as the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), and falls under the sway of Fagin (Ben Kingsley), a warped father figure — conniving and exploitative, but a father figure nonetheless — who serves as the greasy criminal instructor and economic pimp of a gang of kiddie thieves.
Oliver’s tutelage begins slowly, but when he is seen shadowing a scam by fellow pickpockets and mistakenly fingered as the culprit, he’s brought up on charges before a magistrate. The victim, a kindly older gentleman named Mr. Brownlow (Edward Hardwicke), takes Oliver under his wing and into his house, but Fagin and his hotheaded, lowlife associate Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman, suitably slimy) aren’t going to let Oliver slip away so easily, and thus risk the good thing they have going.
Oliver Twist marks the follow-up collaboration of Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, but just as their Oscar-winning adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s Holocaust memoir The Pianist was informed by Polanski’s own abandoned childhood in Krakow during the Nazi occupation of World War II, so too does Oliver Twist feel studded with the filmmaker’s own adolescent rootlessness and hardships. It’s mannered at times, as you might expect (it’s one of those films that opens on a finely sketched engraving and fades in from there), but the surprising thing about Oliver Twist is how deeply it resonates.
At a purported $60 million, the internationally financed film has a substantive enough budget to feel expansive in scope, but Polanski never neglects the telling details — be they young Oliver’s bruised, bloody feet and his simple delight at Fagin gracing him with a new pair of shoes, or Sykes’ thuggish sneer and emotional sheep-herding — that constitute a more robust whole. There are dark elements to the film, but mixed in with the larger-than-life trappings of the characters and the more fanciful bends in the story are simple, relatable truths about the human condition.
The casting of young Clark in the title role is one of the film’s more inspired strokes — he inspires with almost effortless, contrasting civility and grace (“Please sir, may I have some more?”) a generous and sincere sympathy. Flagrant sniveling would have been easy, and in many respects serviceable, in this role, but Clark delivers much more. Score aficionados, too, will particularly spark to the work of Rachel Portman (Emma, The Manchurian Candidate), who delivers some wonderful music. The twin questions of necessity and audience do loom in one’s mind — will literature buffs turn out for another variation on this story, and will modern fans of adult film drama find the themes explored here too childish? But Oliver Twist slowly wins you over, sweeping you up in its dramatic stakes and reminding you in the end that everybody’s got a hungry heart, no matter the circumstance.
Housed in a regular Amray case, Oliver Twist comes presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it looks great. The browns, greys and blacks of the movie, of which there are many, are nicely differentiated, and the image is nearly grain-free. Contrasting spectacular vistas, blacks are also appropriately deep and dark in certain interior scenes, as when a passed-out Oliver is plucked from a rural road and given soup by a kindly woman during his journey by foot to London. Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound tracks are available in both English and French on this disc, and are solid presentations if not quite spectacular. While the streets of London offer some sense of realistic bustle, most of the film’s budget was obviously allocated to the painstaking visual replication of Victorian England, and so Oliver Twist‘s sound design is by comparison less dynamic. Subtitles in English and French are also available.
Owing, of course, to his fugitive status in the United States, Polanski is somewhat of a tough interview for most publications, and so he remains a distinctly reserved and removed figure in the modern American filmmaking landscape. The supplemental features here thankfully help abate that, including a large spread of interview material that, if somewhat scattered in its presentation, nonetheless provides a nice overview of Polanski’s interest in the project, and the process of bringing his vision to bear. First up is a making-of documentary that clocks in at nearly half an hour. Smartly blending on-set interviews with the cast with post-production sit-downs with Polanski, screenwriter Harwood, editor Herve de Luze and various other figures, this footage is unfailingly celebratory and self-serving, certainly, but still engaging, particularly when Polanski talks about the universal “sanctional elements” of Oliver Twist‘s narrative that still hold influence.
Two other featurettes complement the production overview. The longer one, at 18 minutes, provides a look at historical presentations of the character and story on film and stage, as well as gives viewers a glimpse at the costumes, cinematography, editing and set construction of Polanski’s version. More slight, but still charming, is a six-minute featurette that looks at the movie from young Clark’s eyes, including narrated passages from his on-set diary and off-camera footage of him performing a card trick and clowning around with a lizard. The only real problem I detected with the disc was a somewhat strange one — that by accessing the main menu out of a subsection of bonus trailers of other Sony films, the menu screen will freeze or disable the selection
buttons, necessitating disc re-start. This happened three separate times, but no other playback problems were encountered. The bottom line, though: Some literature skates by on reputation alone, and some has the truer weight of aptitude and a deep emotional resonance. Oliver Twist is the latter, a timeless story nicely brought back to life here by Polanski and a gifted ensemble acting corps. B+ (Movie) B+ (Disc)