Watching Roman Polanski’s diligently faithful version of Oliver Twist prompts the question: How did anyone ever think they could get a musical out of this material? For 40 years now children have been prancing around theater stages, grinning and shouting about “Food, Glorious Food,” little aware of the relentless gloominess of the original. The darkness of Charles Dickens’s 1838 novel must have come as a surprise even at the time; his only previous book was The Pickwick Papers, a jolly diversion. Dickens’s fans eagerly awaited his second work, and as they paged through Oliver Twist it must have been as if Dave Barry had released The Gulag Archipelago.
What’s wrong with Polanski’s film is what’s wrong with the book–it’s just too darn sad. Dickens, passionate about the suffering of abandoned children in newly industrialized England, refused to pull any punches. Nearly 200 years later, the hail of punches verges on monotonous.
What can a very gifted filmmaker, like Polanski, do about this dramatic problem? Well, the director of such creepy works as Knife in the Water (1962) and Repulsion (1965) is probably not going to show street vendors in colorful dresses swirling about selling nosegays. (All I remember about Repulsion is that Catherine Deneuve is going insane and keeps a dead rabbit in her pocketbook. Oh, and hands are growing out of the apartment walls.) Instead, he decided to stick closely to the material. His goal, he has told reporters, was to create a movie his children–Morgane, 12, and Elvis, 7–could see. (Elvis?)
Oliver Twist (here portrayed by Barney Clark) is a consistently passive little boy, born in a workhouse and shunted about from one unbearable situation to another. Most adults treat him with shocking cruelty; the hostility of adults toward children is one of the unnoticed themes of Victorian literature. (Thumb through the Alice in Wonderland books looking for kindly adults.) Eventually he makes his way to London, where he is taken into a gang of young pickpockets, including the memorable Artful Dodger (Harry Eden).
Presiding over this lot is the aged thief Fagin, whom Dickens consistently refers to as “the Jew.” This has always been the most troubling aspect of Oliver Twist, and anyone who stages a production has to decide how to balance fidelity to the text with a more generous sensibility. Under Polanski’s direction, Ben Kingsley portrays Fagin as a more appealing character than he might have been, with a light, high voice and a gentle manner. His affection for the boys is paternal and sincere, rather than something creepier.
Edward Hardwicke plays Mr. Brownlow with impressive sweeping whiskers. (When tattooing and body piercing have passed from fashion, can we try another round of elaborate Victorian facial hair? That would be fun.) Jamie Foreman has a wonderful fleshy face for Bill Sikes, but is more bluntly stupid than truly menacing. Rounding, and I do mean rounding, out the cast is Leanne Rowe as Nancy. It is refreshing to have a full-bodied, full-spirited woman in this role rather than a frail, pale beauty.
While David Lean’s inimitable Oliver Twist (1948) drew its energy and menace from the original illustrations by George Cruickshank, Polanski drew inspiration from another leading Victorian illustrator, Gustav Dore. Where Cruickshank’s depiction of tragedy was grotesque and cartoonish, Dore’s was muted, balanced, strangely serene. So Polanski shows us scenes in which the setting sun fans out in parallel rays on the sky, and when lightning strikes it does so in visible zig-zags. I lost count of the number of times Oliver and companions were black silhouettes against the light as they trudged down the dark and narrow streets. What this version of the story lacks in tension it makes up in beauty.
Polanski has abbreviated the story somewhat and eliminated some characters, but remains faithful to the material overall. It is going to be too strong for most children. A character is beaten to death, and we see blood fly (and later, leak out from under a door). A character is shot; when the wound is later un-bandaged for cleaning, the sight made the audience gasp. Keep the “Food Glorious Food” version for your little ones, and reserve the Polanski version for your teens.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.