s been the subject of feature films, a musical and even an animated film starring an orange tabby cat voiced by Blossom’s Joey Lawrence. While director Roman Polanski lends his well-tested technical mastery and drearily realistic outlook to the most recent incarnation, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this story has been done many times before. Oliver is endearing, Fagin is both sympathetic and sadistic, London is gray, but a sense of vague boredom prevails while watching this visually impressive but ultimately unmoving film.
The film’s opening transitions first from a still of a woodcut, then to black and white live action, and finally to color as the camera pans out onto the ominous countryside of Northern England. Oliver, played by the fragile and angelic Barney Clark, and his spherical caretaker Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift) trudge along on a journey to the workhouse where the orphan Oliver will be employed. Polanski masterfully captures the nature of Oliver’s overwhelming predicament by shooting Bumble and the workhouse’s board members from ground-level perspective, so they loom like overfed and mustachioed monsters borrowed from a nightmare.
Once inside, the workhouse is starkly, and perhaps appropriately, reminiscent of a concentration camp. Presenting dismal surroundings, malnourishment and a homogenization of dress, Polanski stages a powerful atmosphere. This similarity is not without personal significance — Polanski was born a Jew in Nazi occupied Poland and spent most of his childhood hiding or running in order to avoid such a fate.
After a series of altercations with moronic authority figures — in the Dickensian tradition — Oliver decides to flee his coffin-making apprenticeship and embark on the 70-mile walk to London. In what might otherwise be a fairly ordinary foot travel montage, Polanski interjects familiar images that connect his film to art and literature of the past. Early in his trip Oliver encounters two divergent roads in a wood, chooses the one less traveled and then wakes up the next morning in a field of haystacks straight out of 19th century impressionism. Such visual allusions suggest Polanski’s understanding that his subject matter is neither fresh nor original, but rather grounded in a larger artistic tradition.
Just before Oliver’s feet are torn and bloodied beyond all recognition, he fortuitously finds himself in a bustling London marketplace. In Polanski’s experienced hands, London looks like a black-hearted Disney amusement park ride: towering buildings, buzzing noise and toothless extras who endlessly push, shove and tussle for Oliver’s first 10 minutes in the city.
He quickly finds himself in the practiced care of Jack Dawkins, a.k.a. “The Artful Dodger” (played by the elfin Harry Eden). Dodger steals a loaf of bread for Oliver, then introduces him to Fagin, a grotesque rapscallion played appropriately, if not predictably, by a scraggly haired Ben Kingsley.
Yet just as Oliver settles into his new surroundings, and the film’s pace ought to start picking up, Polanski drops the ball and the film gets stuck in a mire of exposition and petty crime. While criticizing a classic piece of literature seems unfair, Polanski’s characters begin to lose their chances at sympathy once they step foot onto stageset-London’s cobblestone streets.
Unfortunately for Polanski, no amount of eerie music, ominous fog and circling vultures can create sufficient suspense. Instead, the viewer is left with a cold sense of indifference, even during the brief but gory violence that appears in the film’s failed climax.
Polanski’s Oliver Twist is solid, respectable and true to the novel, but not revolutionary. Once again, Polanski has taken a story of isolation and destitution and made it both personal and relatable, yet this time it suffers from familiarity and repetition. Cursed by near-perfect predecessors, Polanski’s remake feels superfluous.